Ghost was feeling distinctly disgruntled as the Fire Wasps made their way along the road out of Seowyn’s Crossing. She ought to be feeling elated, she knew, now that they were finally on their way north to find Arun and the other rangers and learn from them the whereabouts of the goblins they’d encountered. The goblins, the evidence suggested, that might well be the ones who had massacred her village so many years ago. But that was before they’d paid a visit to Master Benathir.
Things had started well enough. Baron Greenfields had made a point of meeting with them before they’d set out and of speaking to her specifically. “I know it must be difficult for you, Ghost,” he said with a look of understanding. “I hope you will find what it is you are looking for out there.”
But then they’d visited Master Benathir. It was only supposed to be just to stock up on residuum, Ghost fumed, not to seek his opinion on anything. She knew she couldn’t fault Tristan for taking the opportunity to show his teacher the pact blade he’d constructed; the young half-elf was pleased that Benathir was visibly impressed by his accomplishment. But when the young half-elf had mentioned that they were about to head north, the elderly wizard was less than favorably impressed.
“North?” Benathir exclaimed in dismay. “In this weather?” Winter was already beginning, and going north, into the mountains, was not something he would have advised on anyone.
“What’s wrong with it?” Ghost asked, frowning defensively. She waited long enough and didn’t want anyone throwing any cold water on their plans to find Arun’s rangers and then, totems willing, to find the goblins who’d killed her family so many years ago.
Seeing that the young shifter and her companions were determined, the old master nonetheless did his best to at least dissuade them from taking their horses, suggesting that they instead purchase the rituals Endure Elements and Travelers’ Feast which could prove invaluable if, as he feared, the weather took an unexpected turn for the worse and they found themselves short of provisions.
“We do have a fair amount,” Kidalis said, “and even if we decide to go without horses, I believe we would have enough.” But then he went on to add airily “Not to mention the fact that we have myself and, you know, certainly Ghost has her moments of of being an excellent hunter, even in the winter.”
Moments??? Ghost glared at Kidalis but the young noble was listening and nodding to Benathir’s again advising them against taking horses, pointing out the problem of having to take fodder along as well, there being little available in the winter. And when the fodder ran out, he warned, the horses would begin to starve.
In the end, they’d left the horses behind in the Baron’s stables, along with Ghost’s plans to really get to know the Black and, just as importantly, show off her mount and her new riding skills to Arun and the others when they found them. And now they were walking on the road out of the crossing, heading north. On foot. Without her horse. And with Kidalis’ crack still rankling her.
And of course Tilly, being a halfling, had to yet again voice his concerns over whether or not they really had enough provisions for the journey.
Eustace called up to where Kidalis and Ghost were leading the way. “You guys are hunters, right?”
“Uhm-hmmm,” Kidalis acknowledged absently, not looking back. Or at Ghost who was glaring at him once again.
“There you go,” the young minotaur said to Tilly as if that settled the matter.
“What was that ‘moments of excellence’ crap?” Ghost said suddenly, unable to hold it in any longer.
“Just that,” Kidalis replied, completely unruffled.
“I can hunt as good as you any day!” Ghost growled, hunching her backpack further up on her shoulders.
“Really?” Kidalis said dryly, finally favoring her with a glance.
“‘Moments of excellence’,” the young shifter muttered, the markings around her face darkening with her mood.
“I will say we will probably be on equal ground in this area, because you’re familiar with it,” Kidalis offered, making what he considered a concession to his offended companion. “But in most other woods…” the young noble shrugged, gesturing as if that was a different matter altogether. “Eh.”
“You’re never going to let it go!” Ghost was seething now. “One day. One day! You brought in a deer and I just brought in some fish. Just one day. That’s the only time you’ve done better than me.” With that, she strode angrily ahead, prepared to sulk for the rest of the morning. And completely missing Kidalis’ smirk at once again having gotten her goat. After all, he thought sparing a knowing glance back to the others, it’s not my fault I’m the better hunter.
The first part of the journey was fairly straightforward: follow the Crown Way north, then around the Lake of Lost Memory until they reached the Chaos River. The weather conditions, however, were another matter, just as Master Benathir had been worried about. They were barely two days out and already the air was clear but damnably cold. And then, on Carolan the 1st, they had their first snowfall, just as the road ended at the Lake of Lost Memory and they were forced to go around through the woods.
Everyone did what they could to make their trek easier. Eustace took the lead, using his greater size – particularly his feet – to forge the path ahead, making it easier for the others to follow in his wake. Tristan helped by checking to make sure everyone was making the best use of their of winter gear. Whether this was because he’d merely read a book on the subject or because one of his voices was giving him tips, Ghost wasn’t sure she wanted to know. But whatever the source of his knowledge, his suggestions did seem to bear out.
Ghost, for her part, had hoped to shine, showing off her intimate knowledge of the lay of the lands that she have been over many times when she was with Arun and his rangers. She was confidently pointing out places to avoid where bad spots likely lay under the snow, only to fall through one herself and landing in a snow-covered stream. And as if her soaking were not embarrassment enough, she had to endure both Kidalis correcting her – “No, no, this way…” and Tilly needling her over her fall as he made the breakfast extra spicy to warm everyone up.
But for all of Ghost’s embarrassment, it was Tristan who had the hardest time with the cold. Everyone else was holding up okay, but the young half-elf’s thin build and inexperience with being out in the winter had him shivering before long.
Nonetheless, the Fire Wasps made it to and over the Arrow River in good time. Things looked up briefly when the weather cleared for a couple of days, but then grew worse than before when another snowstorm hit. As Kidalis sought out shelter for the group, Ghost managed to do better this time, managing to avoid the bad ground and guide people along the better ground. Tilly made a point of checking on Tristan, and the others as well, to make sure everyone was holding up okay, while Tristan for his part helped to keep everyone’s spirits up. Eustace continued to forge the trail, and, when they reached the shelter Kidalis had found, chose to act as a windbreak for everyone else, using his back to block the entrance. It took something of a toll on the young minotaur but he bore it stoically, showing no sign of his discomfort.
The snowstorm lasted for over a day, and when it finally passed, the Fire Wasps found that they were in fact buried under the snow, and a strange blueness now seemed to permeate the snow encasing them. Ghost, curious as well as feeling distinctly cooped up, was the first to dig her way out, and the first to see the sky lit up with strange shimmering blue lights, like an aurora but during the day, seemingly emanating from the lake. The shifter girl looked up at the phenomenon, her eyes wide with wonder, as the others came out behind her. In all of her years patrolling the woodlands with Arun, she’d never seen anything like this before. When Eustace finally dug himself out – having to widen the tunnel considerably – he was able to put a name to the phenomenon. “Aberrant sky,” he said confidently, looking up at the ever-shifting radiant display. “The lake of Lost Memory affects the weather this way from time to time.”
It seemed a bit warmer now, Ghost thought as they resumed their journey. The wind had died down. She led the way towards the Chaos River, the territory becoming more familiar the further they went. To everyone’s surprise but hers, conditions got distinctly warmer when they got close to the river. Warm springs, she knew, fed the fiver, leaving it not only unfrozen but its banks clear of snow and frost as well.
As they went further, Ghost began finding definite signs left behind by Arun and the others, seemingly random bits of twig and vine hanging in the trees and shrubs, marking the places they’d been and, more importantly, the directions they’d gone when they’d left. Excited, Ghost quickened the pace slightly, but tried to keep their presence undetected, wanting to actually surprise Arun. Which was somewhat more difficult than trying to surprise a an insomniac dragon, as she was reminded when, just as she spotted Vondyr in the distance, sitting near a camp fire, someone suddenly stepped up behind her from out of nowhere and whispered in her ear.
Ghost whirled about, only to find Arun, bow in hand, miming holding an invisible arrow, pulled back and ready to let fly. The rugged-faced elf smiled and mouthed a silent poink at her. Wordless, Ghost threw herself into his arms and the two embraced tightly.
“It is good to see you, child,” Arun said after a moment. “How are you?”
“Wha-? Child?” Ghost blinked. She was grown-up now. She’d been adventuring. She’d fought a dragon, dammit! “Well, I was pretty good until that!” she pouted.
“Well met,” Arun amended indulgently, embracing her yet again, “daughter of my heart.”
There was little time for a reunion, however. Arun had delayed his band’s going into winter quarters to await Ghost and the Fire Wasps but with the snowstorm that had just hit it was clear they could delay no longer. He quickly related everything he could tell them, most importantly that the goblins they’d found were now camped to the north, near the Yellow River. If Ghost and her companions went north, across the border into Kurdenheim, they would find them there. It was clear though that Arun had some misgivings about telling her this information.
“As much as I would spare it to you,” Arun said to Ghost, his tone solemn, “I still feel it is my duty to you as your guardian to give the opportunity you to find the answers, and either the revenge or the justice, that you seek.” He then pointed out the best route: up along the lake into the highlands and from there, cut northeast and they would run into Yellow River. He also told them about a tavern along the way they could stop at, known as Mama’s Place.
When asked what she would do if and when she found the goblins, Ghost said she wanted to make sure they’re the right ones. If she saw an earring the match of hers, then she’d know. She related to Arun what she learned about her earring from Master Attleworthy. She didn’t want to start a war, if it turned out that the goblins they found were not the right ones. But even if they weren’t, they might still know of the ones she was seeking.
“I just want the ones who killed my family,” the young shifter insisted. “I’m trying to rein in what I’m told are my ‘baser instincts’,” she added, frowning slightly over at Eustace.
Ghost was feeling distinctly awkward. Part of her wanted to revert to being a kid again, where Arun and the others would tell her what to do. But part of her wanted to be more grown-up than she really felt, wanting to be seen by her adopted ranger family as an equal. And part of her – a very deep part of her – kept reminding her what she had come all this way for and was wanting to get on with it.
All too soon, it was time to part and let Arun and the others get to their winter camp while it was still possible to reach it. Mindful of the worsening weather, the elven ranger advised her, if conditions prevented their return to Seowyn’s Crossing, to continue on north to where the dwarves were and winter there. He also warned her to keep an eye out for trouble as there had been rumors of enormous boats coming south from Jotenheim, the land of the giants, and other rumors from the border between Kurdenheim and Norhast of trouble between the Hastane and the dwarves.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the last snow,” Arun said, looking up with concern at the overcast sky, “and I think the worst may be yet to come.”
“Let us be off then,” Kidalis said, “before—”
“Oh, wait!” Ghost said, suddenly remembering. “I got you stuff!” Taking off her backpack, she dug out the presents she’d brought along for her family: Mother Ableby’s walnut pastries for Vondyr, a sealed horn of ale from the dragon hoard for Jariel, and finally, a bag of big pieces of obsidian she’d picked out for Arun.
“Alright,” Arun said, raising a bemused eyebrow at the gift. “What am I to do with mountain glass?”
“I thought you could, like, make things out of them,” Ghost suggested with a shrug. It had seemed like a good idea at the time.
“I probably could,” Arun said, accepting the bag with a smile. “I’ve hear they make wicked arrowheads.”
“You’re very hard to get anything for,” Ghost grumbled.
“You don’t have to give me anything,” the ranger leader replied. “You know that.”
“I don’t have to, I want to.”
“Your safety is gift enough for me,” Arun said gently, placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “It’s hard for a father to worry about his daughter being an adventurer. I am pleased you are well.”
“And I am you,” Ghost replied, feeling the moment of parting drawing near. Too soon, part of her felt. It’s too soon. I…
“And I am proud,” Arun said, folding her into a last embrace. With that, the elves departed, walking into the trees and quickly vanishing from sight. The young shifter stared after them, her ears perked straight up at her father’s praise. She then turned and quickly took the lead heading north, not wanting the others to see anything they might mistake for tears.
By the 6th of Carolan, true to Arun’s concern, the weather was getting noticeably colder and more windy. A storm was coming, already visible on the horizon where the clouds loomed dark and heavy. The Fire Wasps found quickly sought shelter as best they could, to try and make camp before the storm hit. Ghost and Kidalis did some hunting while it was still possible. Determined to show up Kidalis, Ghost came back with enough rabbits to make a decent supper, feeling pleased that this night at least they would eat well…. only to find that Kidalis had brought down a moose, one so massive he needed Eustace’s assistance to bring the meat back to camp. As she sat down and began skinning her rabbits, the young shifter grumpily consoled herself with the knowledge that a nice tender rabbit made for a far tastier meal than any stringy old moose ever could.
The blizzard hit them the next day, and it was quickly apparent that their make-shift shelter was not up to the task. But when Eustace, with Tristan’s assistance, cast the Endure Elements ritual, suddenly the adventurers found themselves quite comfortable in spite of the winter storm they could hear raging around them. Sensitive to the feel of the land, Kidalis could sense something besides the storm at work, as if the land itself were anticipating something, something unusual… but what that might be, the young noble could not say.
The storm, though fierce, cleared after spending itself over the course of a day and a night, leaving the land deeply covered in snow. The Fire Wasps broke camp and continued on their way. When night came, they looked up to behold a strange sight. Against the backdrop of the starry night sky, clouds – all looking distinctly like dragons – were moving silently past, a procession that was eerie and yet beautiful at the same time.
The next four days were uneventful, the weather cold but without additional snow falling. As they proceeded, the ground was slowly rising as they were getting into the foothills of Kurdenheim, and soon after they began to see true mountains, particularly three jagged sentinels with snowy peaks. Ghost recognized them but it was Kidalis who knew their name: the Three Brothers, a famous landmark of the region.
Finally, after cutting northeast along the lake rim, the chilled adventurers were greeted by the sight of a small scattering of structures, the most prominent of which was an inn, lighted against the night, smoke curling from its chimney. There was no sign, but they knew from Arun’s description that it had to be Mama’s place.
At the inn, everyone’s head turned when Ghost and her companions entered. The patrons were a broad assortment indeed. Dwarves and Hastane mostly, they noted, with some Summerlings, some Karentai, halflings and elves, through which a short stout woman with elaborate grey braids busily made her way. An elderly, though still quite handsome – and quite buxom – dwarven woman. Mama.
“Find yourselves a table loves,” she called out to the newcomers over the din “and I’ll be with you in a moment.” As she made her way over, she cheerily checked on her patrons as she passed them. “And how’s the stew, Nathan? And another ale? Yes, yes, I’ll be coming, I’ll be coming…”
When the dwarven proprietress finally reached the Fire Wasps, she was carrying a tray of stone mugs that she’d collected from various tables. But when she turned to face her new guests, Mama suddenly turned pale, dropping the tray of mugs which scattered across the floor. She stared at Ghost, seemingly in shock.
“Yes?” Ghost said, feeling distinctly awkward. She had never seen the dwarven woman before. She was sure she would remember if she had. And yet the look of recognition in the dwarf’s eyes was unmistakeable.
“Asha?” Mama ventured, sounding as if she wasn’t sure if she’d believe the answer even if she got it.
Asha? Ghost blinked as a memory suddenly surfaced. A face, a shifter face. Older. No, younger. No, older. Older than her, anyway. And bossy. And… scared?
Up the tree, Squirrel!
Then she was back in the room again. Mama was still staring at her, but then the woman shook her head, more to herself than anyone else. “No, no, of course. You can’t be. You’re too young to be Asha.” The innkeeper stepped aside and bade them come the rest of the way in. “Please, please, come inside, come inside.”
“Wait, uh…” Ghost said as she was drawn along with the press of the other Fire Wasps making their way through the crowd. Tilly though bounded over to help the still visibly shaken dwarf pick up the mugs.
“Welcome to Braeken’s Crag,” Mama said when she’d guided them to a just-emptied table. “I know it’s not much of a town but you’ll see more of it in the light.”
“It’s probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen,” Eustace said, settling onto a bench, enjoying the warmth after days of having to wrap up against the cold.
“This is a town?” Ghost asked distractedly as she sat.
“Well, not much of one,” Mama admitted, glancing at Ghost but then looking away quickly. “Think of it as more of a resting place as people…” Seemingly unable to help herself, the elderly dwarven woman kept looking back at Ghost, then tearing her gaze away to address the others. “It’s not much of a town. It’s more of a way station between, you know, towns when people are coming trading down the river from Kurdenheim”
“Every place has its own exquisite beauty,” Eustace said solemnly, shrugging out of his massive outer cloak.
“You’re very kind,” the innkeeper replied, smiling a little. “Well, welcome to Mama’s place. I am Mama. And consider me all your Mama while you’re here.” She laughed, her face lighting up again with her former cheeriness. “What can I get you my fine lads and lass?”
“I think you have been hanging around the halflings quite a bit,” Kidalis observed with teasing good grace.
“That’s not a bad thing,” Tilly protested.
“I never said that it was,” Kidalis replied soothingly.
“Excuse me,” Eustace asked, politely getting Mama’s attention. “Do you have rooms available?”
“Rooms? Of course, of course, we do.” The innkeeper smiled genially. Up close, they could see streaks of yellow and almost metallic gold shot through her hair, which made her beautiful for all of her age. “Very few travelers stay here but we always welcome a few extra coins when we can find them,” she said cheerfully. “Drink of choice is, if you’ll forgive, called Mother’s Milk. It’s a barley ale. It’s thick,” she added. “Very thick stuff, but if you can get it down you, it’s almost like eating a loaf of bread!”
“A round for all of us,” Eustace said grandly, gesturing with a massive hand that showed he’d clearly need a larger mug for himself.
“Excellent,” Mama said. “And food?” she inquired, looking about the table. “You look weary and cold.”
“Well, on the subject of food,” Kidalis said, “even beyond dinner tonight we would like to purchase some rations.”
“Yes, yes,” Mama nodded, wiping a spot off of the table in front of the young noble. “I do a fair trade in them, indeed, but we should worry about that in the morning, my ducks.”
“Where can I put these mugs for you ma’am?” Tilly asked, holding up the tray of regathered mugs which he’d brought with him to the table.
“Mother’s Milk for all,” Mama said, making a mental list as she took the tray from Tilly. "And can I recommend the stew? It’s mostly muskrat but we stew it in red wine to take out the musk.
“Sounds lovely,” Eustace said, actually smiling himself now. The inn – and its proprietress – appeared to be quickly growing on the minotaur.
“That sounds excellent,” Kidalis agreed, shrugging off his own cloak.
“There’s mutton too,” Mama offered, collecting another couple of mugs from the next table over. “Mountain mutton is some of the best you’ll ever have. Mixed in with it, to give it a different flavor, muskrat can be a bit stringy, but it adds body to the stew. And dumplings,” she added. “I make the finest dumplings in the north with barley flour. And thick with root vegetables.”
“Her black bread is fantastic,” a halfling at the next table called over. “And she has fresh butter because she keeps her own goats.”
A short time later, Mama returned with a tray with stone mugs, somewhat heavy to heft but demonstrably hard to break, which she set on the table along with a pitcher of ale and a warm steaming loaf of black bread and bowls of thick stew, all of which smelled delicious. Kidalis discreetly placed a couple of gold coins on the table which the dwarven woman promptly scooped up with equal discretion. As she and Kidalis discussed the question of rooms, Ghost kept thinking back to the flash of memory she’d had.
Up the tree, Squirrel!
Up the tree, Squirrel. Now!
“Uhm, Mama?” Ghost asked when the question of rooms had been settled. “If that’s the way to address you…”
“Yes dear?” Mama said, turning her way. “Mama, that’s me.” The dwarf was smiling but there was still something in her eyes, something that even still was unsettling her.
Ghost watched the woman’s face carefully. “Who did you think I was when you said ‘Asha’?”
“I… I’m just being silly, I’m sure, dear,” Mama said, gesturing with a table rag, trying to seem casual even as her fingers fingered the bit of cloth uneasily. “There was a girl that used to come in here with her folks, long ago, but she hasn’t been around in a long, long time. And just for a moment…” The elderly dwarf glanced at Ghost’s face once again, then smiled, but it was a fragile, nervous smile, matching the uncertain way she held on to the table rag. “Well, I know many of the shifter clans that live in the mountains,” she shrugged. “There aren’t many with your coloration.”
Reaching inside her cloak, Ghost brought out the beads she wore around her neck and held them up for the innkeeper to see, watching her face.
At the sight of the bone beads with their tribal sigils, Mama sucked her breath in, touching her hand to her ample bosom as she looked at Ghost with widened eyes. “Who are you?” the dwarf asked in a hushed voice.
“I am called Ghost.”
“But that wasn’t the name you were born under,” Mama said, eyeing her. It was not a question.
“No,” Ghost admitted, but stopping there. Never tell strangers your name. Where did that come from, she wondered. Had someone once told her that?
“I knew a clan that had this symbol once,” Mama said, sighing heavily. “They lived up river from here, but… there aren’t none of them anymore.” Her eyes turned back to Ghost, regarding her intently. “So, who are you? And how do you come to be in my tavern?”
“Well, they were my people. They were my family,” Ghost said reluctantly. “And I… survived.” The young shifter was quiet for a moment. It had been so long. The attack. The tree. The river. “Asha…” she said finally. “I had a sister named Asha. Older.” She looked back up to the innkeeper, something unbidden and desperate welling up inside her. “How long ago did you last see them?”
“Well, it’s no secret, dear,” Mama said, her wrinkled face suddenly kind. “Sadness, but… that group was wiped out by goblins ten or eleven years back. If they were your people, then I’m sorry.”
“So you must have seen her when she was quite young.” Ghost tried to remember. Asha was older, but how much older? Old enough that she was beginning to have curves, Ghost suddenly recalled, a fact that she had constantly teased Ghost, who was still skinny as a stick, about. And more stingingly, old enough that their mother was teaching her how to use real weapons. But even so, this would’ve been ten years ago and Asha would have been much younger then than Ghost was now.
“I did,” Mama said, nodding. “She was such a dear thing.” The old dwarven woman hesitated, then lowered her voice. “If they were your people, then I’m sorry, but maybe these are deeds better spoken of when there are fewer ears around.” She nodded over to where a group of goblins were gathered in a shadowed corner, talking and dicing but largely staying to themselves. A group of traders, apparently. But goblins nonetheless.
“We can talk later,” Ghost said, frowning at the goblins but nodding reluctantly. Mama had known her family? Had known her mother? She tried to think back but so much was fuzzy, so much was missing.
Around them, other tables were clamoring for the innkeeper’s attention. “Mama, stop bantering with the new children and come over here. We’ve got empty mugs!”
“Oh, dear!” Excusing herself from the table, Mama moved off cheerfully to attend her other patrons, assuring them “There’s plenty of milk for everyone, loves!”
When the crowd gradually thinned out until only the Fire Wasps were left, the innkeeper put aside her tray and came over, pulling up a chair to sit at their table. “Well, now, Mama has a moment to think. So.. how’s the ale?” she asked, looking around out of habit. “Do you need more?”
Most of them didn’t except for Eustace who was a veritable bottomless pit for ale and Tilly, who could match him in appetite if not capacity.
“So, ducks,” Mama asked as she refilled Eustace and Tilly’s mugs, “what was it you wanted to ask, then?”
“I believe Ghost has all the questions,” Kidalis said, nodding over to where she sat. Mama hesitated, then turned to face her.
“You said… a group came…” Ghost began “of us… of my family.”
“Your family used to come through,” Mama said with a nod. “They used to trade things that they found up in the mountains or that they made. They brought them down here to Braken’s Crag to do some trading. Your mama and your sister, if no one else, used to come in here. I remember her, your mother.” The dwarven woman poured herself a mug, looking thoughtful. “Never knew her name but she was something. Quite the warrior.”
Snow-Stalkers, Ghost thought suddenly. They… we… we were Snow-Stalkers.
“Your sister was just coming into her own as a woman, I think, the last time I saw her,” Mama went on, taking a sip of her ale and tasting it thoughtfully. “But your mother…” the innkeeper gave a respectful nod, “I remember her and those curved blades of hers. She was something. I never knew how the goblins got her, but…” she sighed “…they got them all.”
Ghost tried to remember her mother, but the memories were so vague. She had been tall… or at least she had been tall to a ten-year-old. Tall, and always busy. Busy with Asha, busy with the village, busy with training the older shifters how to fight. An image came to her suddenly, of her mother’s hands, each holding a strangely shaped blade, short but heavy and curved in an odd way. With mist steaming off of them. Don’t touch! a voice said when she reached for one. Not until you’re older.
“What was she like?” Ghost asked suddenly, looking to Mama, her eyes both hesitant and yet needful.
“She was fierce. And she was proud,” Mama said firmly. “And everyone admired her. Whether they feared her, or whether they lusted after her, or whether they hated her…” the old dwarf shrugged with a knowing smile “…nonetheless, they all admired her.”
“Well, I suppose that’s two out of three,” Kidalis put in, favoring Ghost with a smirk.
Ghost frowned at the young noble for the brief moment it took her to figure out just how he had insulted her before her fist whipped out like a snake, nailing him in the upper arm. Fortunately for the young noble it was his shield arm, but the blow still stung.
“I remember… some,” Ghost said softly. “Mostly I remember… Asha was always bossy.”
“Well, she was bossy because she was trying to keep your people alive!” Mama shot back, taking umbrage at the young shifter’s words. “It’s a harsh climate up there. What with the occasional goblin raids and sometimes the dwarves and the goliaths getting feisty. To say nothing of the yeti!” she added, thumping the table soundly for emphasis.
“She sounds a little like my sister,” Kidalis said sympathetically, rubbing his arm where Ghost’s fist had connected.
“Hell’s bells,” Mama went on, gesturing indignantly with her thickly muscled arms, “I imagine your mother probably had to fight off a remorahz in her day!”
Ghost blinked, then shook her head quickly at the confusion. “No, I meant…” She hesitated, then shook her head once more, firmly this time. “No. Asha was bossy. Mom was just…” she tried to find the words, tried to summon the images of her mother she felt she should have in her head, but the memories were vague, fragmented “…Mom,” she finally murmured, looking down.
“Well,” Mama said, somewhat mollified, “it is the duty of older sisters to be bossy to their younger sisters. She was trying to learn how to be a grown-up, follow your mother someday perhaps as chief.”
Ghost looked up again, this time around her at the tavern’s interior, searching for anything that seemed familiar. “I don’t remember being here,” she said after a moment. “Maybe they didn’t bring me in.”
“Well, you would have been younger, I think,” Mama said, reaching over and patting her on the wrist. "I didn’t see your sister till she was a teenager.
“Did you ever meet my father?” Ghost asked suddenly. She had no memories of him at all.
“I don’t know,” Mama said, taking a drink from her mug and thinking back. “I met a number of shifter men, but if I have, then he was never introduced to me as Asha’s father or your mother’s husband.”
“But there’s been none of them?” Ghost asked, biting her lip. “None of them since?” The hint of a plea in her voice was matched by the one in her eyes. “None?”
“We went up after we hadn’t heard of your people for a month or more,” Mama recounted with a heavy sigh. The innkeeper shook her head, her massive braids brushing across her solid shoulders. “It was a terrible business. The bodies were slaughtered. There were goblins aplenty. We tried to lay them to rest but some of them were just frozen where they fell.” She shared a knowing look with the young shifter. “When the mountain snow takes something, it can be quite hard to get it away from it.”
“How far from here?” Ghost asked, looking uncertainly towards where her instincts told her north was.
“A few weeks maybe, if that,” Mama said. “But it’s all up river so it’s hard to take a boat,” she cautioned. At the questioning look Kidalis gave her, she added “There’s waterfalls.”
“I couldn’t remember…” Ghost said, the frustration rising in her once again. She was so close. She should remember the way home. But all she had was fragments, bits and flashes of a life she’d lost.
“The boats have to porterage around and that slows them them down a bit as well. Keep going long enough,” Mama said, gesturing with a grand sweep of an arm, “this river leads all the way back to the Stream Father himself, Hulendoch, the Great.”
“I remembered the general direction I came from before they found me,” Ghost went on, frowning slightly. “But they told me it was too far to go back. On my own, especially.”
“Well, on your own especially,” Mama agreed. “Who found you?” she asked, suddenly curious. “How have you lived all these years?”
“Arun,” Ghost replied. “You know Arun? Longstrider?”
“Oooh! Longlegs,” Mama said amiably, adding with a knowing look “Yes, I know him…. hmmm-hmmmm.”
“Oh?” It was now Ghost’s turn to be curious.
“He was a handsome man, for an elf. A bit on the beardless side,” the innkeeper chuckled, “but most are.”
“His group found me,” Ghost explained. “I lived with them for many years. They basically raised me and became my other family.”
“Then I will say a prayer to them,” Mama said, reaching over and patting the young shifter’s hand kindly, "for they have done well if they have raised you and kept you safe.
“We’re here…” Ghost hesitated, looking around to make sure no one was listening before continuing in a low voice. “Arun found what we believe was one of the goblins who attacked my family. Have you seen…?” Turning her head, she showed Mama her red-stone earring. “Have you seen any goblins wearing these?”
“No, ducks,” Mama said after peering closely at the shifter girl’s earring. “But then, most of the goblins who come through here are honest enough traders. Oh, they’ll stiff you on a tip,” the innkeeper went on, “but they’re not murderers or raiders. Wouldn’t allow them in if they were. Give them the side of my pick,” she muttered, her mouth quirking wryly. “Mama hasn’t forgotten how to fight, no matter how much silver’s gone in amongst the gold.”
“Were you an adventurer, Mama?” Eustace asked, eyeing the old dwarf woman with curiosity.
“Oh no, love, not me,” Mama said genially, waving the very idea away with a flourish of a hand. “That’s not the sort of life for me. I’ve no ‘breath’ running through me as they say.”
“Well, that’s why we’re here,” Ghost said, finishing off the last of her mug. “Just to find if they may have been here.”
“Well, ducks, I hope you find them,” Mama said, looking to Ghost sympathetically. “I hope you get justice for your people. It’s terrible what they done.”
“Thank you for your time, Mama,” Eustace said formally, bowing his head towards the innkeeper in polite acknowledgement.
“Of course, love,” Mama said, taking her leave with a smile. “Anytime.”
When the innkeeper had gone, Ghost found herself overwhelmed by it all. It was the first time since she’d been rescued that she’d ever met anyone who’d known her family. Who could tell her anything about her mother. “I’ll be back,” she said suddenly, rising from the table. “I… gotta go to the jake,” she muttered, distracted as bits of memory welled up in her once again. “Get something from outside…”
“Will you need a rope so that you don’t get lost?” Kidalis offered, unable to resist an opportunity to bait his companion but this time in the hope of distracting her from dwelling on what had to be hard news for her. “There’s a lot of snow outside. Of course we might lose you in it,” the young noble went on, shrugging, “but….”
It was telling that the young shifter did not rise to the jibe and instead merely donned her cloak and left. A light snow was falling and the night was quiet as she walked away from the inn. It had not been snowing that night…
Waking to the sounds of fighting. Stepping outside of the longhouse. Figures clashing in the dark, flashes of bright metal, the scent of attackers. Someone suddenly grabbing her wrist and pulling her towards the trees at the village edge.
“Asha?” Looking up in confusion, Asha dragging her headlong towards the father tree, her favorite, the one so big she could lose herself in its deep myriad branches.
“Up the tree, Squirrel!” Asha looking around anxiously, one hand pushing her towards the tree, the other gripping the half-spear their mother had been training Asha with. Eyes going wide. Asha is afraid. But Asha is never afraid.
“No!” Backing away from the trunk.
“Up the tree, Squirrel.” Asha shoving her at the tree again, harder this time. “Now!”
“No!” Standing her ground stubbornly. “I wanna-”
No warning. Asha dropping the half-spear, seizing her bodily and throwing her up into the father tree’s lower branches, forcing her to grab onto them or fall.
“Get up there, Squirrel. High, where no one can see you.” Asha hissing, picking up the half-spear once again. “Or so help me I’ll tell Mom what really happened to her favorite skinning knife. And where you hid the pieces!”
Climbing, climbing, confused. Hating Asha, bossy Asha. Hearing fighting. Confused. Scared. Asha is never scared. But Asha is scared. Looking down, but cannot see. “Asha?”
“You stay up there, Squirrel.” Asha’s voice, calling back, growing distant. “You stay up there till one of us comes for you. You hear me? You stay hidden, no matter what, till one of us comes back.”
Ghost was sitting on her haunches out in the open ground, holding herself, the inn some distance behind her. The snow had stopped but she was shivering and her face was wet. “I heard you,” she murmured, looking up at the starlit sky. “I heard you, Asha. But you didn’t come back.” She wiped furiously at the tears, cursing them. “Nobody came back.” When she looked up again, she was startled to find a huge snow leopard sitting directly in front of her, its grey eyes regarding her in silent expectation. As she watched, it slowly turned and started heading north, as if following the river. Ghost hesitated, glancing back at the inn, but when she turned to follow, the creature was gone, the snow before her unblemished by any sign that it had ever been there.
. . .
The next day, the Fire Wasps set out. Mama provided the rations Kidalis had requested, including dwarven way-cakes, packed with dried fruits and nuts, along with some dried meat, tea, and other things she had had on hand; three weeks worth of rations all totaled.
“One thing to be aware of,” the dwarven innkeeper cautioned them as they prepared to go. “Watch the mountain passes carefully. The yeti have started to get active again.”
“What’s a yeti?” Ghost asked as she adjusted her hood to cover her ears more completely. Mama explained as best she could, describing the creatures as having a cunning sort of intelligence and warning of their danger.
“Well, good fortune,” Mama said when the time had come to wish them on their way. “And I hope that the thanes of the five halls shall smile brightly on your travels. Or, in the case of the hooded one, turn away.”
The old innkeeper made a point of hugging each of them goodbye. Eustace she dragged down to plant a sloppy kiss on the minotaur’s cheek. Tristan she bundled up like an armload of sticks, leaving the young half-elf briefly worried about getting crushed in her affectionate but very powerful arms. Tilly she all but smothered with her ample bosom. With Kidalis she was a bit more formal, respecting his distance.
When Ghost’s turn came though, Mama drew the her down to her level and took the young shifter’s hands in hers. For the first time Ghost noticed how large the old dwarf’s hands were; enormous, like Eustace’s hands, making her own seem almost delicate in comparison. She turned Ghost’s hands over in her own, studying them. “You have a warrior’s hands,” Mama said after a moment, “like your mother’s hands.” Looking up, her old eyes held the young shifter’s with solemn resolve. “Go and give payback to those who caused her death. I never knew her name but I thought of her as a friend.”
Ghost hugged the old innkeeper tightly, closing her eyes and murmuring “Thank you.” Mama in return kissed her forehead. “A mother’s blessing on you,” she said, leaving Ghost struggling not to cry.
“You come back safe, all of you,” Mama said, turning away herself as she headed back to her inn. Giving a final wave goodbye, she called out “And watch out for those bloody furry yeti!”
As they headed up along the river, Ghost recalled a vague memory of her mother warning her about the ‘shadows in the snow’ that would try to sneak in and snatch children. It was, she was told, why children of the village always being watched. And why her mother did not want her going off alone. She also remembered being told that fire could be used to shove them back if she ever did find herself faced with one.
When she mentioned this to the others, Kidalis thought of the alchemist’s fire they had with them and asked Tristan if alchemist’s fire would be effective in snow. After some thought – and possibly listnining to a voice or two – the young wizard said that yes, it would be.
After following the river for some days, the land rising steadily higher as they traveled, the Fire Wasps finally reached the place where an icy cascade lay, looking as if it had flowed down out of the mountains. At the base, stone markers of apparent dwarven creation bore runes in both dwarven and elvish designating a pass that lay ahead. At the far end of the cascade, hewn steps could be seen going up into mountain, disappearing into what might have once been an ancient dwarven mine.
“Looks like a bad place for an ambush,” Tilly mused dryly after a moment, drawing his sharrash to the ready. “Or a good place, if’n yew are the wuns doin’ the ambushin’.” The rest of the Fire Wasps readied their weapons as well as they began to cross the icy expanse. Though parts of the flow were quite smooth, others were marred by gigantic chunks of jagged ice that made for difficult passage.
As they drew near to the halfway point, the Fire Wasps could make out the remains of a pair of statues that had once adorned the sides of the stairs at the far end. But before they could speculate on what the statues might once have been, a huge rock suddenly came flying through the air, smashing into the ground just behind them. The ice where the rock hit shuddered, groaned, and then collapsed, falling into a deep chasm that now blocked any hope of retreat.
“Ah do believe this is an ambush,” Tilly said, dropping into a crouch and scanning the ridges to either side of them. The halfling did not have to wait long as suddenly fierce white-furred creatures seem to emerge from the ice itself all around them. Without hesitation, he charged at nearest yeti, slashing it with his sharrash. The creature snarled at him viciously, its dire gaze fixing on him.
The battle was then quickly joined. Tristan moved to the side, cursing the nearest yeti and then hitting it with an eldritch blast. The yeti facing Tilly rushed at him, managing to claw the halfling before he could duck out of the way. Another of the creatures charged Kidalis but the young noble deftly deflected its attack.
But more of the creatures leaped into the fray. The yeti closest to Eustace abruptly turned and roared, running in a frenzied rage and trampling both Tilly and Tristan, injuring them and knock them prone. Another yeti moved to stand before Kidalis where it emitted horrible howls that inflicted thunder damage on Kidalis, Ghost and Eustace, forcing them to give way before it.
The Fire Wasps quickly rallied though. Lowering his head, Eustace bellowed and gore-charged the howling yeti, knocking it prone. Another yeti, up on the ridge, hurled a rock at Ghost but the shifter dodged nimbly out of its path, infuriating the yeti which roared in frustration. Unable to reach the yeti on the ridge, Ghost instead flew at the yeti nearest her on the flow, twin-striking it with both swords inflicting grievous slashes that left the creature bloodied.
Realizing that they were in danger of further attacks from the yeti on the ridge where it was out of their range, Kidalis quickly improvised. Running up to the side of the base of the cliff, the warden invoked a hungry-earth as he slammed it with his polearm. The force of his invocation not only knocked the yeti from its perch, it brought down a section of the cliff beneath it, leaving the creature nothing to cling to as it slid down the cliff face to end up prone at the base.
Leaping to his feet, Tilly attacked the yeti right in front of him, hitting it with a crushing surge, wounding it. When Tristan managed to stand again however, his attempted at an eyes of the vestage on the same yeti failed to connect. The other yeti then launched their own attacks. The one facing Eustace savagely grabbed the young cleric, raking his back with both claws, leaving him bloodied and in the creature’s grip. The yeti facing Tilly attempted the same maneuver, managing to claw him with one of its great hands but failing to grab him.
And the other yeti turned and howled its rage at Ghost and Kidalis, leaving them both bloodied from the thunder damage its howls inflicted.
Knowing he had to free himself quickly or succumb, Eustace invoked a resurgent sun on the yeti holding him, bloodying it badly but failing to free himself. The young minotaur quickly healed his wounds as much as he could and then braced himself for the next attack. Meanwhile, the yeti that had fallen down the cliff face jumped to its feet, picked up a boulder and hurled it at the object of its rage, the human who had knocked it down from the ridge. Kidalis moved quickly to dodge but the rock still struck him a glancing blow.
Feeling the need for greater speed, Ghost activated her spats of rapid motion, then charged at the howling yeti, hitting it with both swords in a twin-strike and huring it. But while she was close to the creature, she became aware of a deep moaning it was emitting that seem to attack her very nerves painfully, hurting her as well. Kidalis for his part unleashed a flurry of attacks, moved first to thorn-strike the yeti, pulling it closer, then invoking a strong-skin clash, the force of which hit that one and the rampaging yeti as well, killing the latter. But in doing so, he too suffered the psychic damage that the howling yeti was inflicting on all who came within its range.
In an equally impressive flurry, Tilly slashed the yeti attacking him with his sharrash, knocking it prone and bloodying it. The determined halfling then quickly closed with his prone foe, drew his short sword in a flash and plunged it deep in the yeti’s skull, dispatching the creature before it could inflict any other attacks on him. Tristan for his part cast an eyes of vestige once again, this time hitting one of the bloodied yeti with it. He managed at the same time to curse still another yeti, hurting that one as well.
Seeing two of its fellow creatures killed, the yeti holding Eustace shrieks in the minotaur’s face, calling for blood, psychicly damaging the young cleric but failing to incapacitate him. The rampaging yeti for its part ran amok, missing Tristan who managed to dodge out of its path but trampling on Eustace, Ghost and Kidalis, knocking the last two prone and injured, leaving Ghost in particular in bad shape.
Giving in to what he called his baser nature, Eustace invoked a righteous brand on the yeti holding him, then kneed the creature in its balls. When the yeti dropped him, the minotaur whirled about and savagely buried his scythe deep in the yeti’s spine, killing it. He then quickly moved to heal both Ghost and Kidalis, restoring them considerably. Only to have the howling yeti let forth another piercing shriek that struck Ghost and Kidalis, re-injuring them.
Infuriated, Ghost regained her feet, the stripes on her face darkening as she invoked her shifter nature, backing away from the howling yeti to get out of its range as she planned her attack. Kidalis retreated out of range as well, invoking a second-wind on himself and healing Ghost somewhat as well.
Caught with only his short sword in hand, Tilly quickly switched hands and drew his boomerang, hurling it at the howling yeti. To everyone’s surprise, the boomerang not only hit the creature but actually managed to bloody it as well. Tilly’s moment of triumph however was brief – he had misjudged his proximity to the creature and winced as its howling inflicted psychic damage upon him. Moving cautiously to avoid the effects of the howling, Tristan cursed the howling yeti and then inflicted curse-bites on both the howler and the rampaging yeti, wounding both. The rampaging yeti however then turned and shrieked at Tristan, inflicting psychic damage on the young wizard eveb as ut charged at him and trampled him, leaving him badly bloodied. Seeing this, Ghost ran at the offending yeti in an avenging charges. Her slash unforunately missed, but now she and Tristan had the yeti flanked between them. And seeing Tristan now so badly wounded, Eustace quickly invoked a healing on the young half-elf before any further attacks could leave him in an even graver state.
The hurling yeti picks up another rock, a truly massive one, hurling it at Eustace and Tristan. It seemed like an awkward throw at first, surely destined to miss its targets, but the creature’s intent became clear when the rock crashed through the ground just beyond the two Fire Wasps, opening yet another yawning chasm. Only luck allowed Eustace and Tristan to both dive prone and manage to not fall into the black expanse that now lay behind them.
Bloodied and in a flurry of shifter fury, Ghost charged at the yeti standing near the edge of the chasm where her two companions lay prone, screaming to get it to turn to face her. The agile ranger leapt through the air, bull rushing the creature with a flying strike against its chest, kicking off of it to propel herself back the way she’d came. The yeti staggered backward, arms flailing as it struggled to avoid falling, only to disappear over the edge, howling as it fell into the black depths below. Using the momentum she’d gained from kicking off of the creature, Ghost launched herself without missing a beat at the last remining yeti, falling on the bloodied creature in her full ferocity with a deadly hunt’s end attack, hacking it to pieces where it stood before what was left of its corpse finally fell lifeless to the ground.
The battle over, the Fire Wasps rested and healed themselves. A quick search around found the yeti’s lair up on the ridges. Strewn with an disturbing abundance of bones – human, dwarven, halfling, and goblin among them – they found a fine silk robe from far lands of Dojhan, along with an assortment of gold and silver coins the yeti had apparently stuck in the ice walls of their lair as decorations. A potion of healing was found frozen in the hand of a victim who apparently died before being able to drink it. They also found a strange stone which Tristan examined and determined as having an armor-enhancing enchantment. It was decided that Ghost should use it on her hide armor as she was usually the one most frequently getting hacked at by the various opponents they went up against.
The Fire Wasps continued on their way unmolested, mounting the stairs and entering the tunnel. They were somewhat surprised when they came out on the other side and found green before them, confirming in Ghost’s mind Vondyr’s belief in what he called the geothermal nature of the land in these parts causing the river to be warmer than it should be. As they made their way through the scrubby pines that prevailed on this side of the pass, they suddenly heard the sound of goblin voices coming from up ahead. Kidalis signaled them to silence as they began to move forward, weapons drawn. Ghost gripped her swords tightly, her thoughts dark and vengeful as the world narrowed to focus on the harsh jibber-jabber coming from the trees ahead.