On the morning of Carolan the 20th, the Fire Wasps awoke to find a snowstorm raging outside the mouth of the cave they’d taken shelter in. But this was like no snow they’d ever seen before as the flakes falling and swirling about were as black as dead ash, darkening the sky with their thickness. Tristan sensed that there was something deeply unnatural about the storm, that the snow was somehow charged with necrotic particles. Ghost remembered seeing it at a distance occasionally when she was traveling with Arun and his rangers. Arun had warned her not to venture into it or totems forbid let it touch her. The elf explained that its presence indicated that a gate to Shadowfell must have opened nearby or that a powerful undead creature was close at hand, and every time they witnessed it he immediately got the band under the nearest shelter. “We don’t want to go out into that,” she said to the others, relating to them what Arun had told her. If there were any doubts on her companions part, they were quickly dispelled by the sight of the occasional insect or bird shriveling up in mid-flight and falling into the river whenever the dark flakes touched one. Eustace asked Ilikan if he had ever seen this phenomenon before, but the young goliath, who was watching the ominous storm with wide eyes, shook his head and said no, not in his lifetime.
After a couple of hours though, the black storm abruptly stopped and was replaced by a soft falling of normal white snow. Wherever the black snow had fallen, what remained quickly dissipated, but Ghost cautioned everyone to take care to avoid falling into any patches which might remain unseen beneath the white snow now laying down a new cover over things.
It was quite cold when the Fire Wasps set out again, but with the storm over they were able to make decent headway. As they continued northward, they found that the geothermal effect of the river was slowly diminishing. The river continued to flow unfrozen, the thermal effect on the banks around it were visibly lessening, the snow and ice encroaching more and more the further they went. When night came, they found shelter in a bower of trees.
The next morning, the sky remained overcast but the weather was warmer. Ghost’s spectral snow leopard had not made a reappearance, but the young shifter was beginning to see and smell things about the land that felt familiar. Taking the lead, she constantly searched ahead for signs of life – footprints, a lost arrow, a wisp of smoke from a cook-fire – but there was nothing.
Sometimes Ghost would talk to Ilikan who was swaggering along in adolescent confidence with his new great axe over his shoulder, as well as his spear and a couple of javelins and a shield of hides stretched around a wooden frame. Curious, she asked him how well he knew his weapons and how he had been trained.
“Well, I haven’t really fought with this axe before,” the young goliath replied, nodding up at the weapon he’d acquired. “Otherwise I’m sure I would’ve killed far more of the goblin scum that we encountered.” He grinned confidently as he added “But I’m pretty handy with my spear and my javelins.” He proudly showed them to Ghost, particularly his spear with its haft banded with metal, apparently of dwarven make.
“It’s not like this crude goblin axe,” he went on. “But the crude goblin axe was quite helpful for beating on crude goblins,” he admitted merrily.
“When we get the chance,” Ghost said, “I want to see how much you know.”
“I wouldn’t want to dazzle you,” the goliath youth said, apparently with no sense of how pompous he was sounding.
“I don’t think you have a serious worry,” Ghost replied, her mouth quirking wryly.
“I’m sure you’re not familiar with the advanced goliath forms of combat,” Ilikan went on, trying not to seem condescending. And failing utterly. “But I’m sure…” The enormous youth paused, then offered “You seemed very adequate in battle.”
Ghost’s arm had already whipped back when Kidalis grabbed it in a discreet but firm grip. “When we camp tonight,” the young noble said, giving Ghost a no-you-can’t-kill-him look, “maybe, Illikin, you can give us a few tips.”
“Well, it’ll just be the tip of the iceberg,” the clueless youth said, gesturing loftily as they continued walking. “The very basic training that any goliath youth would receive in our village.”
“Of course,” Kidalis said pleasantly, finally letting go of Ghost’s arm when he was confident she wasn’t in danger of punching the boy’s lights out.
“You know,” Ilikan went on, as if explaining why he’d only be showing them the most basic stuff. “Outsiders. No offense.” The adolescent seemed to lose his train of thought for a moment, then said proudly “My father is a very great warrior. I’m nowhere near his skill level.”
“I’m sure you’ll have time to get there,” Kidalis assured him.
Later, when they made camp that evening, Ghost innocently offered to spar with Ilikan. Kidalis quickly stepped in yet again, wanting to make sure the boy survived any sparring that took place. The young noble took the goliath lad through a few practice rounds, offering helpful tips on the best ways to react and counter certain types of attacks which Ilikan admitted to finding intriguing.
The next day, once they had set forth again, Ghost began to see things she actually remembered from her early childhood as having been near the village and her excitement rose, and in spite of everything a hope rose in her as well that maybe someone might still be living there, someone who would know her. But with each familiar sight, her hopes began to fall. Groves of fruit trees that she remembered as once having been neatly tended were now long gone feral, the snowfall on the ground beneath them marred by the myriad branches and limbs that had fallen over the years, along with the remains of many seasons of fruit that had rotted away uncollected. Hunting stands where village hunters had once laid in wait for passing game and fowl had gone fallow and now stood visible, no one having been there to properly camouflage them. Places she remembered as once having houses out in the open on the outskirts of the village were instead silent scenes of desolation, the houses having long ago fallen in on themselves – no one apparently having been there to repair them for a long, long time – leaving only jagged snow-covered husks of broken timbers and weathered beams.
No one said anything as they finally came upon the silent remains of what obviously had been a village at one time. The nearer they drew, the more it became painfully clear that no one had lived there for a very long time. A small group of feral goats pawing at the snow in the hopes of finding some uneaten grass beneath were the only living things to be seen. A memory from childhood made her instinctively stop to listen for the lead goat’s bell, but there was only the sound of the wind and an occasional uncertain bleat from one of the goats. An image filled her mind of a tarnished, knocked-about brass thing tied on with a bit of rope, something else that lay lost now somewhere, lost and forgotten by all but one.
As they continued, a few houses showed signs of having been burned, but other structures were surprisingly intact, sheltered at least partially from the elements by a cliff face that rose up sharply on one side and a thick stand of ancient evergreens that had been left around the others. Ghost ducked her head hopefully into the intact ones and poked around in the shells of the others. This one she remembered had belonged to Siri, the village smith, with her powerful arms and gruff good humor. That one had been Farshot’s – she remembered having a mighty pine cone battle with his sons Skunk and Kieper. But in each she found nothing, only silence and the flashes of memory that belonged to a girl named Squirrel.
It was strange, though, Ghost thought, that there were never any bodies, neither outside nor inside any of the houses she checked. Neither were there any goods, not any of the things that one might expect to find in a place where people had once lived. Whatever had happened here years ago had left the village stripped bare of any sign that anyone had ever lived there. But ass they neared the village center, she was surprised to find some things that had not been there before. Things, she thought as her ears drew back and the stripes around her face darkened with anger, that should not be there at all.
Positioned around the center of the village, three totem poles now stood, each one jutting up from a large snow-covered mound at its base and each covered with hideous goblinesque carvings depicting leering goblins, hairy hobgoblins, menacing bugbears, bargests and the like. Beyond them though, Ghost could see the longhouse where her mother and family once lived, and it infuriated her that the goblins had profaned her village by erecting these wooden abominations in its very heart.
“I do not like these things,” she growled, drawing her swords and looking around warily.
“Agreed,” Kidalis said, casually drawing his glave and readying it as he walked towards the nearest pole. As he drew near, the young noble saw the first hint as to what lay beneath the snow covering the mound at the pole’s base: a hand sticking up out of the snow, the skin dark and dessicated, still clinging to the bones in spite of the years that had passed. He began prodding the mound with the butt of his glaive to clear the snow away.
Seeing this, Ghost approached another pole, where she in turn found a hank of dark hair poking out of the snow like a patch of dead moss. When Eustace went to join her, Ilikan accompanied him. “I’m sorry, Ghost,” the young minotaur murmured, placing his huge hand on her shoulder. Tristan’s gaze was on the poles themselves. Fascinated by the carvings, he headed towards them. Tilly for his part hung back, gripping his sharrash and watching their rear.
At the first mound, Kidalis had managed to uncover a leg and was prodding in search of other bodies when the temperature, already freezing, abruptly dipped to a bitter, penetrating cold that cut straight to the bone, and a weird buzzing sound filled the air as suddenly all three totem poles began humming, the snow mounds at each one cracking open from within as gaunt and blackened figures began to emerge.
“What foul sorcery is this?” Ilikan gasped, boggling in horror.
“They are the undead,” Kidalis warned, stepping back quickly and whipping his glaive around.
Eustace stepped forward, wincing at the unbelievable cold assaulting him as he neared the nearest creature. Just being close to the thing was enough for him to suffer the debilitating effects of the cold it radiated. He quickly invoked a resurgent sun at the foul abomination, cursing silently when it missed.
Ghost was particularly horrified when she realized that the undead they faced were shifters who had been turned to zombies, shifters of her own village. The one coming at her she recognized as Siri, the blacksmith, and as the thing that had been Siri slammed at her with one great frozen arm, she only barely ducked out of the way in time.
“Why does it have to be the undead?” Tilly muttered as he ran up to help Eustace with the undead shifter attacking him. The young halfling flinched as he too was suddenly inundated with the biting cold radiating from the zombie, causing his attempt to crushing surge the thing to miss.
Lashing out with her swords, Ghost attempted to take her zombie – It’s not Siri… it’s not Siri! – down with a twin strike, but only managed to hit with one sword and only slightly damaged the thing, the blow sending a shock up her arm as if she’d struck a massive block of ice. Kidalis slashed at his attacker with resilience of life, also managing a hit but also only inflicting a minor blow. Ilikan, uncertain and rattled, hurled his javelin at another zombie only to miss it badly, causing the young goliath to cringe further in his chagrin. Tristan chose to hurl fiery bolts at undead, cursing as he missed and then pulling the spell back with a quick sacrifice to Caiaphon.
The shifter zombie facing Kidalis suddenly struck the young warden with its frozen forearm, immobilizing him as a shock of cold went all through him. And then the three totem poles suddenly vibrated and hummed ominously once again as three more undead shifters emerged from the snow mounds at their bases. One lunged for Kidalis and another for Tilly but fortunately both missed. The last one lurched forward, turning sightless eyes all about it as it searched for a living target.
Bellowing in his rage at the foulness the undead presented, Eustace invoked a lance of faith at the nearest totem pole, managing to damage it but taking cold damage from the nearest zombie as well as it lashed out at him, striking him in the side and immobilizing him. One of the newly emerged zombies struck at him as well but stumbled stiffly and missed, as did the one attacking Kidalis. Tilly, suffering visibly from the cold being inflicted on him, cleaved mightily at the zombie with his sharrash, cutting it down. The halfling then turned to cleave again at the totem pole but only succeeded in nicking it.
Disconcerting as it was to Ghost to see her fellow Fire Wasp cut down what had once been one of her fellow villagers, she knew it had to be done, that it was in fact what her people would have wanted them to do. Turning to the nearest totem pole, she dropped her off-hand sword and drew her axe of sundering, laying into the wooden abomination with a furious twin-strike. Her sword cut in deep, hacking a great chunk away from a hobgoblin’s face, and then her axe followed through, chopping the thing clean through. As the foul thing fell to the ground, she winced at the deep biting cold that bit into her as she turned to charge towards the third and farthest pole, the one closest to what had been her mother’s longhouse.
But the zombies continued to emerge as the two remaining totem poles shivered and hummed once again. The unnatural cold they radiated was taking a toll on the Fire Wasps, making it harder for them to press their attacks and to defend themselves. Kidalis managed to cut down the zombie lurching towards him, but another struck him from the side. Tristan also failed to dodge the zombie swinging at him, though fortunately the strikes it inflicted were minor. Illikan started to cheer as one of his spears lodged in a zombie, but when the thing simply turned towards him, seemingly unaffected by the spear sticking out of it, his cheer quickly faded. Eustace, beset by two zombies himself, was able to dodge their clumsy attacks but the cold was affecting him nonetheless. As it was Tilly, who had switched his sharrash to his off hand and drawn his sword to cut down a zombie from behind but missed, the radiant chill inhibiting his usual agility.
“Ghost, take out the totems!” Kidalis shouted, turning to face the zombie that had just clipped him. The young noble and Eustace both had their hands full, fending off zombies on all sides as well as the unnatural cold the things were radiating.
“Got it,” Ghost growled, readying sword and ax as she neared the pole nearest her mother’s longhouse. But at that moment, a strange mist suddenly emerged from the longhouse, flowing unnaturally against the wind. As the eerie mist swirled towards the fighting, it began taking on a vaguely humanoid shape, and the wind around it became filled with terrible whispers that threatened of pain and death.
Undeterred, Ghost closed on the furthest totem pole, leaving first one to the others. She hacked at it with her ax, chopping out big chunk, then hacked again in a desperate fury with sword and ax, cleaving it it two and felling it before it could summon any more zombies. Behind her, Kidalis shouted to Illikan, telling the goliath youth to take out the last pole even as he swung his glaive at a red zombie, invoking a weight of earth upon it. The zombie crumbled into pieces before him even as it clawed unsuccessfully at the young noble one final time.
Hearing Kidalis’ order, Illikan went after the final pole with his goblin great axe, hacking a great chunk from it. He looked pleased as the pole shivered and listed… but did not fall.
“Uhm, it’s still standing!” Tristan called out urgently, shifting to hurl curse and curse-bites at the red and blue zombies nearest him. His casting missed the red zombie but struck the blue one, severely damaging it. But unfortunately the thing still stood and was now turning its mindless attention towards him. And the pole he’d warned Illikan about suddenly hummed and shivered once again, calling forth yet another zombie that immediately lashed at the goliath boy with a frozen forearm, striking him grievously but fortunately failing to take him down.
Tilly set upon his zombie once again, felling it this time, and turned towards the last pole, intent on helping Illikan take it down. Kidalis however was still beset beset by a rather determined zombie, successfully blocking its assaults but unable to turn away from it.
The mist however was moving intently towards Ghosts, radiating a cold far worse than even that of the zombies, filled with a necrotic energy that she found to her dismay prevented her from healing. The young shifter gasped as the mist suddenly flowed over her, drawing her very life force out, the act of which seemed to give the mist more definition and substance, streaks of red seeming to appear all through it even as it left her bloodied and immobilized.
Eustace bellowed in frustration as he swung his scythe at the zombie in front of him, the unnatural cold throwing him off such that he missed the slow-moving creature twice. Another zombie suddenly lurched away from Kidalis and moved towards Tristan. Tilly struck it as it passed, as did Eustace, his scythe connecting this time and leaving the thing severely damaged and causing its strike at Tristan to miss. But while the young minotaur was distracted, another zombie struck him from behind, chilling him even further and leaving him immobilized. And Tilly himself, though suffering from being so dangerously close to the zombies he fought, slashed out once again and left the red zombie in pieces that fell unmoving back into the snow.
Bloodied, Ghost felt her shifter nature take hold and she attacked the mist in a fury with sword and axe. Her attacks however had little effect, even as the mist continued to draw her very life force out of her. The swirls in the thing grew redder still, and where the head seemed to be, she could now see Brekhu’s leering face forming, his dying curse seemingly made manifest now in the mist’s deadly assault on her.
Badly injured from the unrelenting zombie attacks, Kidalis called a healing on himself but even then remained still bloodied. The young noble grimly invoked a weight of earth on the nearest zombie, striking and managing to slow its advance, then quickly turned and used his glaive to thorn-strike the zombie attacking Illikan, his attack ripping the thing to pieces. Illikan, no longer under assault, turned and hacked the last pole yet again, taking more chunks out of it, but to the goliath boy’s chagrin the hideous thing remained standing, though it now wavered quite unsteadily.
Tristan was now suffering visibly from the cold, his pale features covered with frost. He drew his pact-blade and slashed at the zombie that was practically on top of him, but the dagger’s edge skittered ineffectually across the creature’s frozen flesh without penetrating.
Tottering but still standing, the remaining totem pole rattled and hummed weakly, but this time no zombies emerged. The mist, however, suddenly changed its shape, forming huge barghest-like jaws that snapped viciously at Ghost, but the shifter ranger managed to deflect them with her sword.
Bellowing in rage, Eustace invoked a radiant blast on the zombie in front of him, obliterating it completely. A red zombie however struck Kidalis – who seemed to be getting more of the zombies’ attention than anyone else – chilling and immobilizing him once again. But the tide was finally seeming to turn as Tilly slashed the red zombie from behind, cutting it down handily with his sharrash, giving Kidalis the needed respite to get his second wind.
Bloodied and suffering from the draining attacks, Ghost desperately slashed at the barghest-faced mist but missed. She then quickly ran backwards to get out of its range, hating the act of giving ground to the thing but knowing she couldn’t take much more of the draining it was inflicting on her.
Illikan, steeling his will and focusing, struck the pole with fierce determination, his great axe finally cleaving and destroying it “I got it!” he beamed, looking to his companions for praise. When he saw that everyone else was still busy fighting for their lives, he mumbled “As… if there was any doubt…” as he hurried to rejoin the battle.
Seeing Ghost’s situation, Tristan turned his attention to the demonic mist, striking out at it by invoking the vestige of mount valis. The mist seemed to shudder under his assault but did not turn away from Ghost, pursuing her even as she retreated, still on the attack. Its reddish swirls quickly enveloped the young shifter once again with the grasp of the cold grave, its cold and necrotic forces draining her further until finally, sword and ax still in hand, her eyes rolled up in her head as she shuddered and fell, limp and unconscious to the ground.
Seeing Ghost fall, Eustace quickly invoked a healing word on himself, then did an urgent life transference to his companion, reviving her enough that her eyes flickered open once again. But even with the minotaur’s healing, she was still bloodied. And worse, she was still within the mist’s deadly draining aura.
The last zombie attacked Kidalis, who was immobilized, but missed. Perceiving Ghost’s situation to be more dire, Tilly charged the mist with his sharrash, slashing through it. The magic of his weapon seemed to injure the swirling thing, pushing it back from where it had been over the shifter girl. Tilly pressed his attack, swinging at it again, but this time his slashes had no effect.
“Fire,” Eustace called out suddenly to the others, recalling something from his clerical teachings. “Fire or radiant energies can make vampiric mists temporarily substantial.”
Hurrying to her feet, Ghost found herself both relieved and annoyed – relieved at having been rescued from the mist’s draining swirls but annoyed that Tilly – Why did it have to be him? – was the one who’d pushed the thing away from her. I’ll thank him later, she thought to herself as she healed herself to the point where she was no longer bloodied. And then I’ll slug him.
Kidalis, looking distinctly annoyed himself at the persistance of the last zombie facing him, stepped back, drew a vial of alchemist’s fire from his cloak and hurled it at the undead thing even as it lunged at him with its jaws open to bite. As the zombie unwittingly snapped down on the vial, the briefest look of confusion lit up its deathly face just before a burst of greenish fire erupted in its mouth and a moment later its head exploded. When the rest of the undead thing slumped to the ground, truly lifeless once again, Illikan glanced at Kidalis. “That would be really impressive,” the goliath youth said with determined impassiveness, “if I thought you meant to do it.”
“What makes you think I didn’t?” Kidalis responded smoothly, casually brushing a bit of zombie spatter from his cloak as if this sort of thing happened every day.
Illikan shrugged, not rising to the bait. “I think our friends need our help?” he suggested instead turning back towards where the fight was still raging. “From beyond the trees, I hear some shouting and whatnot.” The goliath adolescent’s confident mask abruptly cracked however – along with his voice – when they came upon the sight of the other Fire Wasps harrying a blood-streaked mist in the form of barghest jaws intent on consuming Ghost. “What in the name of the mother of mountains is that?”
From his vantage point, Tristan invoked a curse at the mist, but missed. The young wizard quickly make a sacrifice to Caiaphon to draw it back, but it was for nought as his reinvocation missed as well. The mist was swirling furiouly, trying to get around Tilly who had positioned himself between the mist and Ghost. As the mist suddenly flowed over and above him, Tilly slashed up at it with his sharrash but missed as well.
The mist jaws then lunged forward and down, their cold and necrotic touch immobilizing and bloodying the shifter girl once more. But when Eustace invoked a lance of faith on the the mist, blasting it with a burst of radiant force, the swirling thing shuddered and suddenly seemed to become substantially more solid than before. Tilly immediately tried to take advantage of this sudden change even as the mist whirled around to attack him as well. His sharrash struck with a solid slash this time, actually bloodying the unnatural thing, but at a cost of the halfling taking cold and necrotic damage himself. While the barghest mist was distracted, Ghost hurled herself at it with a hunt’s end whirl of blades. Her attack however, while leaving it in worse shape than before, failed to take the unnatural thing down, at a cost of the shifter girl taking more cold and necrotic damage herself, standing but bloodied yet again.
Hurrying to join the fight, Kidealis draws his hand ax at hurled it at the foul mist, hitting it thanks to Eustace’s having made it less insubstantial. Illikan joined in as well, hurling a javelin at the swirling thin only to have it miss to his enormous chagrin, a feeling which was soon shared by Tristan whose eldritch blast missed as well. Ignoring the attacks from the other Fire Wasps, the mist turns its barghest face upon Ghost, whispering “Die!” as its jaws once again snapped around her. The shifter shuddered as her life force was drained from her and then slumped unmoving to the ground beneath the mist’s triumphant leer.
But before the mist could render itself insubstantial once again, Eustance, engraged at seeing his companion felled for a second time, quickly invoked another lance of faith upon it, the radiant light of his goddess’s benevolent force striking and destroying the foul thing for once and all, with Tilly instinctively ducking out of the way as the minotaur’s holy blast burst through the dissapated mist’s final swirls and over his head.
The evil threat finally dealt with, Eustace quickly knelt to heal Ghost, reviving her. When the young shifter opened her eyes, she felt as if a definite weight had been lifted from her, as if Brekhu’s curse, to kill her and her companions with undead made of her own people, had finally spent itself. And as she looked around, she saw the remains of the shifters of her village returning once again to normal semblances of death. It was still hard, seeing them in death, but not as hard as it had been to see them foully raised for an unholy purpose.
Kidalis, weary from having had to fend off so many attackers, collapsed on a log for a much-needed rest. Eustace turned to Ghost to ask what she wanted done with the remains of the people of her village. The young shifter frowned in thought for a moment. “It is not our custom,” she said finally, “but it would be better to build a pyre to burn them so that no one can ever again befoul them the way that evil barghest did.” She looked around the village for a moment, then back up at the minotaur. “You can use those houses that have fallen in on themselves for fuel, but leave the intact ones alone. They…” In her mind, memories, Squirrel’s memories, filled the village with those who had once made it live. “…they should be kept. They may be needed again. Someday.”
Ghost rose and turned towards her mother’s longhouse. It’s hard to see it so close once again, but harder still to bring herself to enter it. Memories, more memories, came flooding back with each thing she saw. The well where Asha would draw the water, teasing Squirrel that she wasn’t strong enough to pull it up yet. The tree where her father, as mild as he was, would teach her how to climb better, faster and higher than anyone else. The open span of ground where her mother would train the other Snow Stalker villagers in fighting techniques with their oddly curved blades for which they were known. In the end, she had to close her eyes to shut it all out before she could place her hand on the door.
It took a good strong shove to push the door, frozen in place by time and the cold, open and out of the way. Eustace put one of his massive hands on Ghost’s shoulder as she ventured inside. It helped to steady her at the sight of her mother, shockingly preserved, on the longhouse floor, her body cold and blue under the white fur but otherwise seemingly untouched by time. As she stared, Ghost noticed that her own breath was even more visible than before, a sign confirming what she felt, that for some reason the inside of the longhouse was even colder than the air outside.
Her mother was half covered by the body of an enormous bugbear, both of her kukri blades plunged into the body of the creature which must have fallen on top of her, pinning her there. A strong coating of frost glistened on both bodies, thicker the closer it was to the blades, and Ghost realized that these were her mother’s magic kukris, capable of calling forth great powers of ice. Her mother’s last defiant act – killing the enemy who was killing her – had inadvertently preserved them both, locked in the moment of their death. One less threat to the village would have been her only thought, even at the end. It was the way she had always been. It was the way she would have wanted to go. Silent tears of fierce pride froze on Ghost’s cheeks even as they formed, but she made no effort to wipe them away.
Eustace quietly backed out of the longhouse to let Ghost be alone. Once outside, the young minotaur started gathering the villager bodies and carrying them to where the pyre would be. The others had already searched the area and had found a bone hair comb set with topazes, along with two alchemically-treated whet stones. Frozen whet stones, Tristan deduced after he’d examined them a bit. Touch the stone to a weapon and it does cold damage to whatever it strikes.
Inside the longhouse, Ghost took hold of the bugbear’s frozen corpse and began to pull it off of her mother’s. There’s no better ending than to kill your enemy as he’s killing you her mother had once said. To which Jariel had later observed dryly Except killing him first. And not dying. As she tugged on the stiff bugbear body, it came away quite suddenly, the kukris still embedded in its chest. It was, Ghost thought later, as if her mother had finally released them from her grip. Ghost jerked the weapons from the dead foe and turned them over to examine them. It was the first time in her life she’d ever handled them, and she was startled as a layer of frost swiftly spread over her hands and fingers but she felt no cold. Frost-brand weapons, she recalled, that dealt cold damage. Clang them together sent out a blast of cold that immobilized opponents within their range and extinguished non-magical fires.
Ghost tucked the weapons away in her belt, then knelt down by her mother’s still form. “I came back, Mom,” she whispered as she picked her up to carry out to the pyre. Her mother seemed so small now, but in fact she had always been smaller than most. Ghost and Asha both had taken after their father in size and strength. It was only in Squirrel’s memories that their mother had been big. But it had been her mother’s ferocity that had made her who she was, and Ghost and Asha had inherited that as well.
When Ghost stepped outside with her mother in her arms, the other Fire Wasps turned to look. Even if they had now known who the dead shifter woman was, the resemblance would’ve made questions unnecessary. The frost steaming from her belt where she tucked the weapons, however, were a different matter, particularly as they were making tribal designs of frost into her clothing, but even those questions would have to wait. Ghost took her mother over to where the pyre was and set her down in the center. She took a moment to check the others, trying as much as she could to arrange families and loved ones together. It struck her, when she was done, that she had not found Asha among them, but she knew that by itself did not mean anything as others were undoubtedly missing as well, their bodies lost in the woods or dragged off by scavengers. Illikan assisted her as much as he could, the young goliath quiet and subdued for once as they finished their preparations.
As she knelt before her mother once last time, Ghost remembered, almost as an afterthought, to take her mother’s bone bead necklace from around her neck, staring at it as it lay in her hands. She was supposed to do this, she knew, but she could not remember why.
“It is only right,” Illikan offered, as if sensing uncertainty. “Unless your sister lives, you are chieftess now, yes?”
“Chieftess?” Ghost said. The thought had not occurred to her at all.
“That is what it means, does it not?” the young goliath youth went on, nodding at the necklace in Ghost’s hands. It was similar to the one she wore, but more elaborate, with a particular piece added that bore the symbols for tribe and leader.
“It’s what it meant,” Ghost acknowledged, not wanting to think about it. “When there was a village to be chieftess of.”
“This cannot be all of the people who lived here,” Illikan insisted, wanting to encourage her. “I have seen other snow leopard shiters. I told you before.”
“It’s not the same.” The young shifter frowned. Hope was not something she felt comfortable with. Not with all of the faces she’d seen, all remembered and all dead now. “They’re probably related, but…”
“Perhaps,” Illikan shrugged, finally seeming to realize that he wasn’t helping.
“I have to…” Ghost paused, looking at the remains of the village around her. “Someday there’s going to be more of us, here, again,” she said finally, her jaw setting in sudden decision as she vowed “I will bring them.” She put the necklace away in a pouch. It was not right to put it on. Not yet. But someday…
Eustace was removing the goblin and bugbear corpses, along with the remanants of the profane totem poles, to the edge of village. “Do not burn them,” Ghost said when she saw him. She had another use for them, but she did not say what, doubting that the young minotaur would approve.
When the pyres for her people were finally ready, Tristan used his magic to ignite them. Ghost noticed that the effort taxed him though. The fight had taken a lot out of all of them.
Ghost watched in silence as the flames from the pyres rose into the air, sending her family and people back to their ancestors on the wind. She looked around now and then to see if Snow Leopard would appear, but it did not. Perhaps she had done what was expected of her and there was no need. It was sometimes hard to know. Snow Leopard was not big on explanations.
“There’s no way…” Ghost said to her fellow Fire Wasps, tears coming unbidden as she watched the pyres blaze up before them. Emotions churned within her, making her words choked and jumbled. “You all had homes… at one point. Some of you still do. Actually most of you still do,” she amended, thinking of Kidalis’ father and sister, Tristan’s family at the Tarry, and Tilly with his seemingly myriad relations.
“Actually, we all still do,” Kidalis replied somberly. “And that does include you as well now, Ghost.”
“All that was…” Ghost turned to look around at the village, silent and empty. Her mother’s frostbrand kukris weighed heavily at her waist, as did the necklace in her pouch and the memories flooding her mind “…I carry with me now.”
“Do the memory proud,” Kidalis said, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“Find a way to pass it on,” Eustace added.
“A little Ghost?” Kidalis’ mouth quirked wryly as he glanced at Eustace. “I have mixed feelings about that.”
“Our shaman is named Leodaia Watches The Clouds,” Illikan put in. “She says that all trees fade in winter, but that every winter is followed by a spring.”
“Yes?” Ghost said, looking slightly puzzled.
“Just because your village is empty now,” the young goliath said encouragingly, “that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a spring.”
“I know,” the young shifter nodded. She looked again to the empty huts that lay along the village’s edge. “One day I’m going to bring people back and we’ll start again,” she said with determination. A bit of uncertainty crept into her expression though as she added “Once I figure out how to do that.”
“I’m pretty sure it involves a hut and furs,” Illikan said, trying to be helpful. “Starting a family.” The young goliath’s brow knotted at his own uncertainty. “My brother has one story and my sister has another. I don’t know who to believe.”
Tilly tried hard not to laugh, seeing that Illikan was quite serious. Ghost merely said "Well, I was thinking on a… somewhat different scale.
“I’m not supposed to ask, but I am very curious,” Illikan mused, then shrugged his enormous shoulders. “We will talk later.” The young goliath looked around at the others. “Well, uhm, I still have a home. If you’re still willing to travel with me.” He drew himself up to his full height, trying to seem older than his years. "The road is better when it’s shared.
“That is true,” Kidalis said neutrally, trying not to laugh. Ghost, however, was regarding the young goliath with a highly dubious raised eyebrow.
“What?” Illikan asked, noticing the look she was giving him.
“You’re the youngest, right?” she began.
“Of what?” Illikan asked, not understanding.
“Of your siblings?” she went on.
“Oh. Yes,” Illikan nodded.
“Just wondering how you’ve made it this far,” Ghost said drily, checking her pack to make sure she had everything as they made ready to depart.
“Well, I am strong,” the goliath boy said defensively.
“I have to think…” Ghost hauled her pack up onto her back, “your older siblings must beat the crap out of you on a daily basis.”
“Well, perhaps not the crap.” Illikan again tried to make himself look taller, which only added to the impression of a boy trying to seem like an adult. “I hold my own. When I was younger I took it a lot worse. But I have gotten quite strong as I’ve grown.” He heft his arm up, showing off his muscles.
Ghost eyed him for a moment, then reached out and pinched his bicep. Hard.
“Ow!” Illikand yelped, pulling his arm back. “You pinch like my sister!” At a look from Ghost, he quickly added “It’s not a bad thing! Her pinch is very terrible!”
“Let’s get you back to your village before they’re missing you,” Ghost said finally, unable to repress a slight smirk.
“They probably are already,” Illikan said, looking worried. “They probably think the Snatcher took me.”
“What’s the Snatcher?” Tilly asked, looking up at the unfamiliar name.
“Dare we ask?” Kidalis said, half-expecting another of Illikan’s fluffed-up answers.
“Some of the villages around our area have been having a problem where people have gone missing,” Illikan explained, quite serious. “I went out with some of my friends. We all quested in different directions to try and figure out how it was happening. I happened upon the goblins and thought perhaps it was them, but I didn’t see any signs that they were taking people. Except me.” Realizing what he was admitting to, the young goliath tried to backtrack. “But that’s ’cause… I… Well, they tried to.” He drew himself up stalwartly once again, proclaiming “But we know how that went!”
“You got lucky,” Kidalis observed drily.
“Luck has nothing to do with it,” Illikan insisted. “You were obviously guided to be by a higher purpose.”
“Well, while I will admit that you could probably have taken a fair number of them,” Kidalis replied, “there is no way you would have lasted against the barghest, the goblin caster, and…”
Illikan dismissed the young noble’s words with an off-hand gesture.“It doesn’t matter. I knew that something would provide. And here you all came.” The young goliath nodded, adding somberly “The mother of mountains is like that.”
“Something did provide,” Kidalis acknowledged, not wanting the discussion to delay their departure. “You’d better thank the Totems that we were there.”
“I do,” Illikan insisted stubbornly. “I thank the mother of mountains.”
“You’re wise for your age,” Tristan put int, trying to help smooth over the young goliath’s ruffled feelings.
“I don’t know. Thank you.” Illikan looked surprised, clearly not being used to being praised for wisdom. He grinned and shrugged. “But I am mostly known for being strong.” He then pointed with his spear to some foothills in the distance. “If you see that hill there, it is the one that, if sunset were coming, it would come just to the left of my village. It’s that way.” The direction he was indicating was somewhere between north and northwest.
“Good,” Kidalis said, leading off in the indicated direction to get everyone moving.
“Let’s be on our way,” Eustace said to the others.
Kidalis glanced back when he saw that Ghost was lingering at the edge of the village. “Ghost, if you are done here…”
Ghost waved him on. "There’s one last thing I need to do. I’ll catch up with you shortly.
As the other Fire Wasps followed after Kidalis, Eustace lingered in the back, out of earshot, explaining ‘the birds and the bees’ out of earshot to Illikan, who seemed shocked.
“Really? the young goliath exclaimed.
“I’m not sure how it works for Goliaths,” Eustace said, “but for most beings…”
“All of my siblings are lying to me!” Illikan said, clearly dismayed.
“First to grab the honor,” Tristan murmured, nudging Eustace in the side.
Back at the village, Ghost set about her personal task, one she was sure Eustace would not approve of which is why she chose to wait until he and the others were out of sight. She worked quickly but methodically, using her hatchet to prepare and sharpen a set of stakes which she drove into the ground at intervals until they ringed the village along all approaches. The young shifter then went to where the goblin bodies had been piled up and began chopping off the heads, taking them in twos and threes back to the stakes where she impaled them on the sharpened tops, each one facing away from the village in grisly warning to all who approached. The smoke from the pyre, drifting through the trees and across the snow-covered ground, cast an eerie pall over the scene, which seemed appropriate given the message Ghost was making. This place is ours, she thought fiercely as she jammed the last head down onto the last sharpened end, glaring into its glazed and unseeing eyes. And this is the fate of any who would take what is ours.
By the time Ghost caught up with the others, Eustace was just finishing his talk with Illikan about mating and procreation, at least from his theoretically knowledge of the subject. “..that’s how it works.”
“So we’re not found under rocks,” Illikan said, his young stone-like visage frowning in understanding. “And we’re not brought by birds. So both of my siblings were lying!”
“I don’t think you’re…” Eustace ventured, not wanting to cast the Goliath youth’s siblings in a bad light as he tried to think of some way to rationalize their versions. “I don’t think you’re-”
“I will have stern words with them,” Illikans said firmly, gripping his spear in such a way that the minotaur wondered what ‘stern’ meant in Goliath culture.
“You might be born from rocks,” Eustace said, remembering the some of the tribal origin stories he’d read in the course of his studies. The abbott had, after all, told him that in every ancient myth there was almost certainly some grain of truth.
“I do not think so,” Illikan said quickly, but his face softened with doubt as he remembered his own tribal tales. “It is said that long ago our we were born from rocks. But that was when our race was young.”
“I think that’s called a euphemism,” Ghost said as she came up alongside the two.
“It might be a creation myth,” Eustace offered, ready to go into another prolonged lecture. “Not a myth, but-”
“No,” Ghost countered, smirking. “I’m pretty sure part of it comes from ‘rocks’.”
“Are you saying that I have… big stones?” Illikan said cheekily, picking up on the tone in Ghost’s voice and provoking a laugh from Kidalis who had come up as well. “Do not ask me to prove it. I have only just met you. And you are very furry.”
Ghost eyed the Goliath youth, her smirk vanishing as her ears drew back a bit. “I think I have been insulted, but I am not sure.”
“You’re just furry,” Illikan went on, waving a hand as if to dismiss any hint of insult. “I know many people who are furry. I would not show them my great stones either.”
“So how far is it to your village?” Eustace put in quickly, noticing that Ghost’s fist was already clenching and wanting to change the subject before Illikan got it in the arm.
“Heaven help us if we are ever around this kid when he is older,” Kidalis sighed, diplomatically inserting himself between Illikan and Ghost, whose ears were still flattened back with annoyance.
“Maybe someday,” the young goliath said as he started jauntily heading along the path.
As they walked, Kidalis asked “What are your plans?”
“What?” Illikan asked back, not understanding.
“What is your plan,” Kidalis elaborated, “for when you get older? Will you travel?”
“I… don’t know,” Illikan said after a moment, frowning slightly. Apparently he’d never given the future much thought. Or any thought for that matter.
“For the first time,” Ghost muttered, giving the garrulous goliath a narrow-eyed sidelong look, “I now understand why Arun and the others shook their heads so much.”
“I am not certain,” Illikan went on, continuing his response to Kidalis. “I am still rather young. I must spend some time among my people, but it is generally considered appropriate for us to do some travelling.”
“If you do wish,” Kidalis ventured, “after you have perhaps get a little bit more skill at fighting – and you are obviously off to a fair start – my father and my sister run a very well known mercenary company and you would do well in their ranks.”
“Except that I was never that bad!” Ghost glared at Tilly’s snort and Eustace’s dubious eyebrow as the two shared a glance; they knew her when she was young and, oh yes, she was that bad. “Not a word!” she growled, her right hand balling up into a fist in warning.
“Actually,” Tilly said, stepping up quickly to walk alongside Illikan – and put the big goliath youth between his shoulder and Ghost’s fist – “my grandmere used to say that if there is no ill will in your actions, you never need apologize.”
“Your grandmother sounds very wise,” Illikan said somberly, oblivious to the sub-currents of growls and glares going around him.
“And yet we always looked forward to getting together with you every year at the fair,” Eustace said, dropping an amiable – and restraining – arm around Ghost’s shoulders. “There’s something endearing about your chutzpah.”
“My what?” Ghost blinked, then narrowed her eyes at the unfamiliar word, wondering if she’d been insulted again.
“Your boldness,” Eustace said airily, keeping his grip on her. “Your bravado.”
The next couple of days passed quickly. The weather was cold and cloudy at first, but finally cleared, and the group realized that that were now going generally upwards, the land rising steadily before them. Illikan seemed quite a home, mountain-goating his way up trails what were obviously to him familiar trails. Jumping atop a boulder, the goliath youth paused and pointed upwards above the trees to where, in the distance, a building could now be seen, jutting out of the side of a precipitous cliff. "That is the monastery above my village.
“Looks… precarious,” Eustace said, shading his eyes with his hand as he regarded the strangely placed structure.
“Nobody knows why the monks put it there,” Illikan said, following the cleric’s gaze. “But there are stories. They say they are guarding something. I am sure Brother Nahum will be delighted to see you. He hardly ever gets visitors.”
“Is he a goliath?” Ghost asked.
“No.” Illikan frowned in thought. “I am not sure what he is. He is… different.”
“Different than any of us?” Ghost asked, gesturing around at their very disparate group.
“Yes,” the goliath youth responded firmly, nodding his head. “He is quite different.”
The next day was cold and windy when the Fire Wasps made it it to the village, though they were almost on top of it before they even realized that it was a village. The buildings looked to have been almost drawn out of the natural landscape, stone dolmens everywhere, with no signs of obvious cutting or working in the parts that had remained uncovered by a layer of snow. And no signs of obvious entrance either. Sudden from up ahead came the sound of clashing metal, one piece between purposefully struck against another for the specific purpose of making noise.
“They have spotted us,” Illikan said.
“Is that the alarm?” Ghost asked, suddenly wary, looking ahead for any signs of movement.
“Just a warning that people are coming,” Illikan replied with a shrug. “We are not unfriendly.”
“Obviously,” Kidalis noted, nodding to where a group of goliaths were now openly approaching, armed but not with weapons in hand.
(more to come)