Seven Kingdoms: Seowyn's Crossing

Siblings

When Ghost was a young girl, she used to retreat into the highest branches of the tallest tree she could find when she wanted to think. With no trees currently available, she chose now to retreat to the highest perch she could find in the ship’s rigging. It didn’t hurt that the gentle swaying of the ship beneath her reminded her of the way the trees would sway when the mountain winds would blow through them. She stared out at the harbor where the reflected moonlight rippled across the water’s surface. With a little effort, she could imagine it was snow and that she was back in the high mountains looking out over Three Rivers village. Looking out over home. When she was still Squirrel and Asha was… Asha.

. . .

Squirrel tensed, gripping the practice half-spear tightly with both hands, her eyes on the older shifter girl, watching her face and body for any hint of what to expect. But the other girl was calm, her face so blank she almost seemed bored, her body seemingly relaxed as she held her own half-spear at the ready. The younger girl feinted left, but then darted right, aiming a nasty swipe at her opponent’s leg as she moved to get past. But the older girl neatly side-stepped, parried and then whirled the butt-end of her half-spear around, slamming it into Squirrel’s chest so hard that the smaller girl was knocked flat on her back and left gasping for breath where she lay on the ground. Another step and flick and the younger girl felt her half-spear fly up out of her grip to be neatly caught by the other girl.

“That’s three, Squirrel,” Asha said, tossing the half-spear back to her sibling after a moment. “We’re done.”

“Again!” the younger girl demanded, scrambling to her feet with as much dignity as she could manage. Which wasn’t much.

“No,” Asha said simply, turning to head back to the village.

“Again!” Squirrel shouted, running to get in front of her sibling, wincing from all the places she was now hurting in but determined not to let the older girl go. “I can do it!”

“You’ve had three chances,” Asha said, holding up three fingers for emphasis. “That’s two more than Mother would’ve given you. You didn’t get past me once. So you don’t get to go. That was the deal.”

“It’s not fair!” the younger shifter protested, stamping her foot angrily. “You’re bigger! And your arms are longer! And—”

“And if you’re face to face with an orc or a hobgoblin…” Asha said, suddenly advancing on Squirrel with spear raised and eyes intent “…and you’re the only thing between them and the village, is that what you’re going to do?” She leaned down until their faces were even and her spear-point was pricking the center of the younger girl’s leather training gear. “Tell them it’s not fair?” The older girl snorted derisively and shoved Squirrel back to fall on her butt once again. “Good luck with that.”

“Well, how’m I supposed to get better if you won’t let me scout with you?” Squirrel grumbled, climbing to her feet, more warily this time.

“Scout?” Asha favored her with an incredulous look as she put the two practice spears away. “You’re not even in training yet. You’re nine, Squirrel.”

“You started when you were twelve!”

“Nine is not twelve.”

“I’m the biggest girl my age!” Squirrel protested, drawing herself up to her full height, even though it still left her a full head-and-a-half shorter than her sister. “And bigger than most of the boys. And faster, too! And a better climber! And—”

“And still nine,” Asha shot back, clearly annoyed. The older girl took a moment to breathe deeply, then looked back at her sister in exasperation. “Mother was hoping that you’d end up with some of Father’s calmness of spirit. Instead, you’ve turned out like…” she wave a hand indicating the totality of her younger sibling “…like you!”

Squirrel screamed in her full pre-adolescent fury as she launched herself at Asha, but the older girl simply grabbed her around the waist with a practiced arm and held the outraged youngster squirming and struggling against her side. Squirrel struggling even more when she saw Asha was carrying her towards the Still Waters river, but to her surprise, instead of throwing her in Asha just set her down at the water’s edge and then sat down beside her.

“Look,” Asha said, nudging her forward to where they could see their reflections side by side in the water’s mirror-like surface. Squirrel scowled but did as she was told. “People have always said that I looked like you when I was your age. And that you look like me at that age.” And it was true, Squirrel had to admit. The family resemblance was striking. Even with the five years difference in age, with Asha being taller and more filled out and mature, it was there for everyone to see.

“It’s all there, Squirrel,” Asha said, nodding at the two images. “You’re going to be taller. And bigger. And stronger. Everything I’ve got, you’re going to get. Just give it some time.”

“Everything?” Squirrel’s shifter features wrinkled up in exaggerated distaste. “You mean I’m gonna get your moon-face, your ugly muskrat coloring, and your enormous bu— Owww!” she yelped when Asha slugged her painfully in the arm. The younger girl retaliated at once, but only yelped again when she slammed her fist ineffectually into Asha’s tautly muscled arm. “No fair!”

Asha laughed and threw an arm around Squirrel’s shoulders, pulling the younger girl close. “Hugs ’n slugs, Squirrel,” she said genially, ruffling her ears and neck with rough affection. “It’s family. Just accept it.”

. . .

“Hugs ’n slugs, Asha,” Ghost murmured, her eyes on the harbor and her words drifting away on the night’s wind. She shivered at a sudden chill even though the night was warm. “Always.”

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Troubling dreams

“Asha!”

Ghost awoke, suddenly, like all the other times. Heart pounding, eyes wide, arm stretched out in the darkness, reaching, reaching for….

Asha.

Shivering, Ghost sat up, pulling her bedding up around her. It had been the same every night since she’d experienced the vision. At least, that’s what she thought it was, what it had felt like. It had been so clear, so real. So heart-achingly real. She was on a high pinnacle, looking out over a vast panorama. On one side, a shifter woman, her face grim but her eyes dull as she pulled on her fighting gear. Asha. An older Asha than Ghost had known, but Asha nonetheless. There was a weariness about her that was at odds with the older sister she remembered, the Asha itching to prove herself, insisting to their mother that she was ready to do more. Ghost watched as this Asha drew on a pair of gladiatorial gauntlets with sharp steel blades extending from them like claws. She drew the straps tight and tested the fit, methodically doing practice strikes one glove against the other. But there was no eagerness in her eyes, only a kind of weary resignation, an indifference to living or dying but knowing that the habit of surviving meant that this was just one more fight to get through. One more night in the pits before the roaring crowds of on-lookers shouting incoherently amid their drinking and betting, waiting for the first blood to be shed.

At the same time though, the other side of the pinnacle looked down upon a different scene: her fellow Fire Wasps beset by a horde of minotaurs, hostile and menacing, eyes blood red, as unlike Eustace as the underdark was to day. The battle was a desperate one, and though Kidalis, Eustace, Tilly, Tristan and The Shaper were all fighting valiantly, it was clear that, without Ghost, things would go against the Fire Wasps in a very bad way.

Then the moment came as on the one side Asha readied herself to leap into the fight pit while on the other the Fire Wasps braced for the minotaurs final assault. And Ghost, feeling as if she was being ripped in two, had to choose. There was no way to run to both, it was one or the other. And it was now. “Stay alive!” she cried urgently to Asha as she drew her kukris and bolted to where the Fire Wasps were to join the fray. “I’m coming! Please, just stay alive!”

And then the vision had ended and she was back with the others.

Ghost couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d been compelled to make a choice, but she didn’t understand why. Visions were supposed to be omens, portents, glimpses of possible futures, or at least that had been her understanding of them. A choice made in a vision didn’t mean anything, did it?

She’d thought about it afterwards, in her private moments, and she knew why she’d made the choice she did. Asha was Asha. Even though ten years had passed, and Ghost’s memories were from back when she’d still been the shifter girl known as Squirrel, Asha was Asha. Brave. Strong. Fierce like their mother. And for all that they fussed and fought with each other, Squirrel would put her older sister up against any of the other young shifters in their village. And Asha had survived, all this time. In the beginning, it had only been a suspicion, but after hearing of a pit fighter called “the White Cat” from a stranger who’d visited the island, she’d dared to hope. And with the answer she’d gotten from the seer she’d dared to believe. Asha had survived. And in the fight pit, it would be Asha against a single foe. And Ghost would still bet on Asha to be the one to prevail. Ultimately, it was her companions who needed her more. They were faced with greater numbers and the fight was already going against them. It was a battle decision, the kind she’d had to make many times, with no time for anything but instinct. And thus she’d chosen.

But ever since the vision, Ghost had been having the same dream. It started the same as the vision, but in her dreams, it was Asha she reached for, Asha whose name she called out as she awoke in the darkness, arm outstretched but fingers closing on empty air. Had she made a mistake before, during the vision? And if so, did it matter? Reluctantly, Ghost lay down once again, trying to will herself back to sleep. Stay alive, sister, she willed into the darkness. I’m coming. Snow Leopard watch over you until we meet, but stay alive. Stay alive.

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A letter given to a Summerland-bound ship, to be delivered to The Minstrel's Tarry, Seowyn's Crossing

Dear Arun, Jariel and Vondyr,
(and Fish, Twixt and Tween too, if you are reading this),

It’s been a while since I last wrote. I hope my occasional letters reach you. I think of all of you often and I hope this letter finds you well. (And well-behaved, you younger three!)

Where to begin? We joined up a while back with a dwarven merchant named Darberik Fivebraids in a port called Sigurth’s Climb. He had three ships heading more or less in the direction we wanted to go. Kind of unusual ships. Made out of stone but still able to float. Some kind of magic. The ships were the Forgeworthy, the White Gull and Cassada’s Vigil. We were traveling on Cassada’s Vigil. Which was a good thing because the White Gull ended up getting sunk in a battle with some pirates (they call them Sea Barons around here) led by this one really ugly pirate named Gar Shatterkeel. We went out after the pirates that attacked us later though, found their lair and pretty much cleaned them out. It wasn’t as simple as I’m making it sound though. For one thing, it was actually us allied with Darberik and his crew and with some allies he (or rather his friend, who’s now the high mucky-muck in these parts, managed to find for us, against the pirates and their allies, which included orcs, sahuagins and some undead, including some kind of undead wizard or priest or somesuch. Main-thing is he was bad news, whatever he was. More on that later. Oh, we also ended up with some divine help courtesy of Eustace being apparently held in high regard by Shandalene and by a dragon named Lazaranthios. I don’t know who managed to get him to fight on our side but it was definitely good having him there.

It was still a pretty tough fight. Tougher than I thought it would be. The Firewasps emerged okay, but our side had its losses, including a guy named Thongal Brekwold whom I’d gotten to think well of. Strange. We met earlier on back in another port when he and his sister tried to pick a fight with me. Why am I the one everyone’s always trying to pick a fight with? It’s never Kidalis or Eustace or Tristan or Shaper. It’s always me. I mean, it’s not like I go around looking for a fight. Is it?

Anyway, we did win the battle and cleaned out that entire pirate’s nest. And captured their biggest ship, Olhydra’s Fury. We letting Darberik have it to help continue his voyage since he lost one of his three ships. We’re probably going to rename it. I think The Wasps’ Nest would the best name, but Eustace wants to call it Shandalene’s Blessing or something like that.

Did see something pretty amazing in the first fight though. Eustace has this spell that allows him to manipulate water. A lot of water. I mean, enough to float a ship in. Or strand one dead in its tracks, along with any sharks or other monsters that happened to be around. That much water. Had never seen him do anything like that before, so maybe it’s something he just recently learned how to do. Anyway, it was pretty awesome and really made a big difference in the battle. This from the guy who was heaving his guts from seasickness when we first started out. Weird, huh?

Which kind of brings me to something that’s been bothering me lately. I’m not sure how to put it but… it seems like most of the other Fire Wasps are getting a lot better at what they do than I am. It’s amazing to watch them in action. Kidalis is like a force of nature and can call on the land itself to attack or ensnare foes. Eustace, besides being formidable physically, seems to have more and more god-given powers, not only to heal (he really does make the difference in almost every fight we’re in when it comes to keeping us up and fighting), it’s like he can banish enemies to gods-know-where and call on divine light to drive back the worst things we face. And he can even get direct aid from Shandalene sometimes, which he did in our battle against Shatterkeel. Shaper can use some kind of mental powers to possess our enemies and make them fight each other as well as call on some elemental powers that let him shape parts of himself to his will. Tristan is still pretty quiet, but his spells have grown more devastating and he’s far and away our best distance fighter. And, much as it really chafes me to admit it, Tilly is now like a weapon-wielding ball of fury in a battle, a blur of attacks that never seems to slow down, let alone stop, switching back and forth between weapons with scarcely a pause and with some kind of gift that turns what first seems like a miss into a deadly strike. I mean, I try to do my part. I never hold back and I always to to be up front in a battle. But I just feel like I’m not keeping up with the rest of my companions. That said, I do feel that I’m where I’m supposed to be though. I have found two – possibly three – survivors from my village that I never would’ve found if I had not been with the Fire Wasps.

I might also be reacting to something that happened in the battle. The undead cleric or sorcerer I mentioned before at one point did something to me in the battle. Something I’d never experienced before. It was like part of my very life force was suddenly taken from me, leaving me weakened in a way I can’t even describe. You know me. I’m not afraid of any foe with a weapon I can see or of any wound a weapon might inflict. This was different. For that moment, for the first time I can remember, I knew fear. I recovered later, once the battle was over. But the memory of that moment stays with me.

Oh, our eventual destination is Estwald for the big festival that’ll be held there. Just so you’ll know where to send a letter. After that we’ll be heading east to that island I told you about where someone saw a shifter woman that looked a lot like me fighting in the fighter pits. She is known as White Cat. I know that the chances that this might be Asha are slim, but I have to check it out. I’ve been given a number of clues that Asha might still be alive. And if so, I have to find her. No matter what.

Speaking of shifters, how are Fish, Twixt and Tween doing? I hope that they are well and that they are learning everything you have to teach them. Has Fish earned a new name yet? I know he didn’t like his childhood name much and was wanting a new one. And he is at the right age for it. But remind him that ‘Ghost’ is already taken, in case he’s showing any signs of forgetting. The last I recall, he’d chosen the whip as the weapon he wanted to learn. Not the choice I’d have made, but it’s best to let him find his own path for that. I know he’s stubborn, wilful, and sometimes shows poor judgement, but I’m hoping he’ll still listen to you at least some of the time.

And no, Vondyr, I’m not admitting a damn thing! I do hope that Tween will be able to learn more from you though. I’m convinced he has some kind of gift similar to yours. From what he told me, Snow Leopard appeared to him in his dreams, telling him that I’d be coming. For someone who was not born a member of my tribe, this is most unusual.

As for Twixt, I don’t know which way she’ll go. In spite of her being younger than Fish, she seems more level-headed and less reckless. Has she picked a weapon to train with yet, Jariel? I think she will prove to be stronger and more resilient than she looks. The bow might appeal to her nature more than the blade, I think, but I’m sure you will find what suits her best.

I know it was a lot I’ve asked you all for, looking after these three kids for me. If you ever are in need for them, or for yourselves, I left instructions with our manor at Seowyn’s Crossing to give you whatever you need from funds I have there.

I miss you all terribly. I hope Snow Leopard and whatever spirits or gods might be near will always look down upon you kindly. Will write again when I can.

Hugs & slugs,

Ghost

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The banked results.

Kidalis waltzes into the Giant’s Downfall after spending nearly half the day at the bankers guild with some extremely happy bankers. He comes up the table just after the midday meal and drops a small pouch in front of Tristan, Tilly, Ghost, and Shaper. “There is 100 platinum in those pouches for you. I have changed all of our excessive amounts of copper and silver into gold and platinum for the party fund and changed all of our various gems and works of art for gems that may, in a pinch, be used for some of our more powerful spells.”

Kidalis turns to brother Eustace, “You, my friend, have always refused the splitting of our finds, so I simply had your share turned into more gems. Please, if you wish for some coin, do let me know. You know you have more than earned it.”

The young noble sits down and orders a bowl of the soup and a glass of wine and watches everyone’s reactions to the coins put before them.

Ghost stared at the pouches after Kidalis’s announcement, then opens hers and up-ends it on the table, the platinum pieces falling into a small silvery pile. She pokes through the pile looking hopeful, but finally stops and looks up at Kidalis with a disappointed pout. “You didn’t leave me any gems? Not even one of those tiny little garnets???” The young shifter slumped grumpily in her chair, her arms folded across her chest. “It’s ‘cause I’m not girly enough, isn’t it?”

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The first 4 sessions
The first in a series of posts to remind us all of "The Story So Far"

The Summer of Youth

A group of children of the town of Seowyn’s Crossing meet up and become friends during the Midsummer festival. They are:
- Brom Furrow: a 10 year old boy of Kalrentai descent. His family’s farm is on the northern outskirts of town, but he dreams of being an Adventurer instead of a farmer.
- Eustace: an 11 year old Minotaur who has been brought up in the smaller, older church of Shandalene as opposed to the grander Temple of The Twelve across the river. He is the ward of Abbot Justan, whp has raised him almost as a son.
- Ghost: a 10 year old Shifter with snow leopard markings. She survived the destruction of her village, Three Rivers, when goblins attacked and has been raised by a group of elves – Arun Longstrider, Calthis Brightbow, Jariel Bladestorm, and Vondyr Spirittongue.
- Kidalis Havengard: a Summerling son of a minor noble family who has come to the Crossing to foster with Sardan Greenfields, the Baron of Silver Falls.
- Tristan Holdfast: a cloudy-headed 12-year old half-elven boy who is the grandson of Talbot Holdfast, the keeper of the Minstrel’s Tarry, one of the finest taverns in Summerlund. He was often distracted by the voices in his head, promising things, trying to get his attention.

Over the course of the day, they meet and become friends, especially when faced by Isaak Ketteran, the son of the local miller, who is very much a bully. Kidalis meets Alinora Greenfields, the niece of the Baron, who seems faintly amused or intrigued by him. Talbot offers the children 1 silver coin each for every Fire Wasp they catch, and, inspired by this, Brom starts calling them the Fire Wasps. They talk about their dreams of fortune and glory, and Brom shows them his special hideaway: the Castle of the Old Ones. This becomes a special place of their childhoods.

The Spring Time Faire

Three years later, the Fire Wasps are joined by Tilly Thistleshanks, a young Halfling boy whose father was killed by Limba, a legendary “gator” that terrorizes the river-faring halflings of Dalenshire. They meet Elswara Wellheart, Kidalis’ beautiful cousin, whom Brom develops a crush on and secretly dreams of marrying. She and her adventuring company, the Sword Watch, are preparing to set out on their first adventure.

They are invited to visit a caravan of Vistani that Brom’s father has allowed to camp on their land. Their ancient Tiefling seer, Adra Saleesha, gives them many fortunes, but, disturbingly, refuses to divulge much to Brom, seeming upset by something she sees.
Following the faire, Elswara visited Kidalis one more time with ancient gold coins, suggesting that her group was on the verge of a big score. But then she disappeared and was not seen again.

The Dead of Winter

As the Fire Wasps entered their adolescences, each found that much was expected of them. When Baron Sardan set out on a winter board hunt, he left Kidalis in charge as bailiff to run festivities through the New Year feast. Brom was being trained by Captain Holloway Larkwell of the town guard, and he was still intending to become an adventurer. Eustace was keenly aware of Abbot Justan’s failing health and was picking up more of the Abbot’s duties to help him. Tristan was keenly aware that he was failing to make significant progress in his magical studies under the Eladrin Wizard, Benethir Talvarison. Tilly was aware that halflings were worrying about Limba, and he was finding both romance with Henna Brambleberry and terror with Henna’s ancient relative, Granmere Odetta. Ghost had been experiencing rivalry with Calthis’ cousin Shale Brightbow, but he was suddenly gone off on his rite of passage.

When a guard was murdered, and goblins broke into the baronial manor at Road’s End, the group pursued them, finding that they had invaded the Castle of the Old Ones. A battle ensued, and Brom and Tristan were brutally cut down. Tristan suddenly heard the voices in his head hit a resolve that, if he died, they would be lost, and they granted him power as a Warlock. Brom, however, lacked the adventurer’s gift of Pneuma, and he perished in the battle. The goblins were cowed when a collection of green crystals in the Castle manifested into humanoid form and fought alongside the Fire Wasps, and the young adventurers were victorious. They puzzled over the crystals, which did not move, and mourned Brom, returning him to his family to be buried.

Baron Sardan was slain during the hunt, and Kidalis was sent away, as Gyzzel Markrand, the Baron’s Reeve, did not have the authority to have a fosterling. Abbot Justan died before spring, and Abbot Jacoby took over instead, to Eustace’s dismay. Ghost had to travel away with the elven band, and Tilly returned to Dalenshire with his family. Tristan worked with Benethir, trying to harness the strange powers he had unlocked.

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A brief sending, back and forth, Ghost and Arun

From Ghost to Arun, with Shaper casting the ritual:

“Arun. Firewasps going on journey.
Three shifter kids need training while gone.
Letter at Tarry will explain. Please come.
Please please please please please? Ghost.”

Reply from Arun to Ghost:

“Ghost. Will come soon as can.
Hope Firewasps have safe journey.
But when you return,
We will have a long talk.
All our love. Arun.”

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A letter written to go with a caravan but left at the Tarry

Dear Arun, Jariel and Vondyr,

I hope this letter reaches you. I’m sending it in care of a merchant caravan that is going to be passing through your patrol area and hoping that they’ll cross paths with you. If they don’t meet you, I told them to leave it at the trading post at the northern road, which I know you guys sometimes stop at.

So much to tell you! The last time I wrote you, it was a long letter from the Faewyld, but I don’t know if you reached you because as you know time sometimes gets weird whenever you cross from our realm to that one. And sometimes it gets really weird as I found, which I’ll be telling you about shortly.

We ended up defeating Limba, Tilly’s nemesis, which I already wrote you about. But after that we were kind of stuck in the Faewyld for a while and ended up having a few adventures there. We finally ended up making our way out by going through the Underdark where a border exists between the two realms. Lots of things happened. We freed some slaves which turned out to include a family of nobles from our realm, Baron Undersee and his wife and son, and some others, all of whom we brought back with us. And Eustace took out a temple to some dark entity and consecrated it to Shandalene.

Eventually we got back to our realm, and to the Crossing, only to find out some spell had made people unable to recognize us for a while. We found that was because of Tarkantus, who we found had taken over our manse. Hmmm. I don’t remember if I told you about that or not, but we have a manse now, courtesy of Baron Greenfield in gratitude for our services. But anyway, we had to take out Tarkantus and his pet Beholder, which was a pretty hairy fight that took us back to the Castle of the Old Ones where we found this secret chamber we’d never even known about. Kidalis and Eustace think that there’s some history there that we need to find out about because too many nasty people seem interested in it for it to be mere coincidence.

Oh, and just to let you know, we’re all fine. Kidalis is becoming even better at just holding up large numbers of foes and keeping them unable to move about while the rest of us pound on them. Wish his love life was going better though. He’s got some serious noble-ish aspirations going on for Baron Greenfield’s daughter, Elanora, but the Baroness isn’t keen on the idea at all and the Baron’s trying to tell him, nicely, that he needs to look elsewhere, Elanora’s got obligations, blah-blah-blah. Seriously, I do not understand these noble types. My mother fought off all rivals with knife and claws before the whole tribe to get my father. Simple, clear and final. Shifter ways are better.

Eustace seems to be growing more powerful as a healer and as a caster of radiant magics. I can’t count the number of times he’s stood between the Fire Wasps and defeat or disaster. He lost some magic armor that he had for reasons that had to do with saints and such, but in truth he doesn’t seem to need it much anymore. Tristan seems to have to have come to some kind of terms with one of the voices in his head. Evidently he’d reached a point where it was time for him to make some kind of choice and he opted for the voice he calls The General. Who it seems was some direct ancestor of Baron Greenfield and who may have been the one who founded Seowyn’s Crossing and who walked with the legendary bear. Don’t know exactly because Tristan doesn’t talk about it much, and mostly we just get bits and pieces of it when he’s distracted and talking to himself. Which he does less of now though since he only has one voice in his head. Most of the time, anyways. I think the others are still there but are just keeping quiet for now.

Shaper is still something of a mystery. Of all of us, he seems the least changed. Or maybe the changes are simply not visible to us, what with his being made of crystals and all. That and his powers are so different from any of ours. Psionics, I think they’re called. We did learn from the fight with Tarkantus that there definitely is some connection between him and Brom, though its nature still remains a mystery. Tilly is still infuriating at times, but dammit he’s just so damned good at what he does. His biggest asset is his unpredictability. Even I can’t guess what he’ll do at times, and we’ve been companions for a long time now. He’s on the top of his world now, having defeated Limba and captured the creature’s essence in a bottle which he gave to his Grandmere Odetta.

Want a scary thought? Grandmere Odetta has a house full of bottles just like the one Limba’s imprisoned in. Dozens and dozens of bottles, different sizes and shapes and colors, all hanging from strings all around her. And each one with its own Limba-type inside. Reminds me to be careful not to get on her bad side. My mother did not raise me to end up in a bottle dangling from a string in some Halfling hut.

But anyway, I need to tell you about something important. We kind of picked up a few things while we were in the Faewyld. I already mentioned the Undersees and their fellows who’d been enslaved. And Eustace ended up bringing back an actual behemoth, which ended up being called Bessie of all things. Well, I ended up with three shifter children. No, not that way! They were three little street thieves who stole something from me, and I ended up having to chase them down – more than once – to get it back. Which I finally did. Only to discover that one of them, the oldest one, was not only a member of my tribe, but was someone from my village. Which is where things get really strange. This boy was just a little older than me – maybe six months or a year – when the goblins attacked and destroyed my village. Like me, he escaped by diving into the river. But his branch of the river took him through a portal into the Faewyld, and for him, only two years went by while for me it was ten. So now he’s only twelve but I’m twenty. Weird, huh?

So anyway, I couldn’t just leave him there. And if I took him, I had to take the other two, even though they weren’t of my tribe, or even of our realm – Faewyld shifters, born ‘n bred. But Fish – that’s the older boy’s name – refused to go without them, so it was all or none. Anyway, I wasn’t going to just leave any of them. I know it sounds strange, but I think I was meant to go there and meant to find them. At least from what Twixt – he’s the younger boy – says.

I ended up sending them home the long way, which would take more time but was much less dangerous than taking them down into the Underdark with us. We actually got back months before they did. They finally showed up here a few weeks ago and are now living with us at the manse. I have to admit that I’m only now realizing the full weight of responsibility that I’ve taken on (Yes, I know I should’ve thought of that first, but I was not gonna leave them there, no matter what, okay?). And that I may end up needing your help with some things, which I’ll get to in a bit. But I need to tell you about them first, so that you’ll have some idea of them.

Fish, the boy from my village, is the oldest. He’s light-skinned with the pattern of the Snow Leopard clan like I have, and seems to be about twelve now. And he is a handful. There are times when I feel like throttling him. He’s impulsive, never thinking about the consequences of his actions. He’s also headstrong as hell and would argue with a fence post, especially if it means admitting he was wrong. On the plus side he’s tenacious, fiercely loyal and protective of the younger two shifter children he ended up taking under his wing. But I just can’t seem to get through to him! It’s like he has to fight me on every little thing. I don’t understand how we can have so much in common but be so different.

Twixt and Tween are the younger two. They’re twins – Twixt is the boy and Tween the girl. They are darker skinned, more of a woodish brown, and have distinctly different markings from Fish, but are clearly brother and sister. They look to be between nine and ten years old. It’s easy to see how they got their names – they’re really good at moving through crowds. Slipping between people as if they were standing still, diving through narrow spaces that would give a cat pause, or dashing under carts and horses while they’re still moving. Definitely some serious street survival skills there.

Tween is actually the one I should mention first as she’s the more outgoing of the two. I think you’d like Tween. Unlike Fish, she’s more level-headed and practical, and she at least tries to think things through. She’s also very clever. Too damned clever at times. It was her tricks that not only allowed Fish to steal from me but also got him free later on when I’d managed to catch him, getting me into trouble with half the town, from angry barbarians and angry dwarven merchants to outraged priests and monks and finally the town guard. When I didn’t do anything! Honest!

Twixt is the quiet one. He follows his sister’s lead and after her he follows Fish’s lead. Even when he knows he’s doing something wrong. Which he tries to apologize for even as he’s doing it. But there’s something special about him. I think he’s like you, Vondyr. He seems to have some affinity for the spirit realm. After he finally realized that I wasn’t going to beat him or his sister for robbing me – and after I’d made sure they had enough food for the first time they could remember – he told me about seeing “a strange cat” in his dreams. A big one, one that was white with odd markings he’d never seen before. The cat, he said, seemed to be telling him that someone was coming to find them, and that they needed to be found. He’s too young to remember anything of his tribe, being orphaned with no memories of even his parents, but I’ll wager anything that whatever tribe it was, their spirit totem was not Snow Leopard. So like I said, I don’t think this was just coincidence.

All this has gotten me to think about some things that have been stirring around inside me for a while now. Ever since that adventure at my old village – or what was left of it – up in the north, actually. I feel like I have some things that I’ve been neglecting. There were some rumors I’d heard that there might be other survivors somewhere – people seeing or hearing about shifters that resembled the Snow Leopard clan. And then there was not finding Asha’s body among the others at the village. I keep wondering if she survived somehow. If she did – if any of them did – I felt I needed to find them one day and bring them all back together.

And that’s the thing, you see. I found Fish. Far, far away – in another realm in fact – but alive and definitely a Snow Leopard like myself. And as you’ve always reminded me, where’s there’s one, there might be others. And now, again seeming more than coincidence, no sooner am I back than I come across someone who’s seen another shifter like myself, far away, across the sea in fact, a land called Ministal. A female pit fighter called the White Cat.

I need to go track down these rumors – the ones from the north and this new one from across the sea. More and more I feel this. And it seems like an opportunity to do so may be coming up soon for one or both of these. Which kind of leads me to a couple of things I need to ask of you.

The first one’s not a big deal – just that if any of you should hear any new rumors about any shifters who look like Snow Leopard’s, let me know. I know you probably would anyway, but I just wanted to make sure you know.

The second is a bit more to ask. I need to think of what to do with the kids. I’ve thought of taking them with me, but given the dangers we seem to run into every time we go anywhere, I’m thinking that might be not a good idea. But at the same time, I don’t want to leave them alone. The staff at the manse will look after their basic needs, but they need more than that. A lot more. These kids have been on their own for too long. They need family. They need guidance. And training. And to feel like they’re part of something. I’ve been doing what I can, trying to familiarize them with their shifter heritage, tribal legends and such, but if I leave them behind to go searching for others I won’t be able to do that for them.

And then there’s the fact that because of the way they’ve had to live, they’re more street kids than anything else. Fish remembers some of his skills from when he was younger, but Twixt and Tween don’t even have that. I think it would be good for them to spend some time in the forest, out in the wild, with people who know everything there is to know about that sort of life. People I can trust to teach them what they need to know, and who know something about shifters. People I can trust with their lives, because I learned to trust them with mine.

I know it’s a lot to ask, and I’ll understand if you can’t do it. You have your own lives and responsibilities after all. But if you can take them under your wings for a while, you’d really be helping a lot. And giving them experience which will shape them and prepare them for the road ahead, what ever may come. I don’t know yet how long I might be gone. Some months certainly, but I’m thinking less than a year. With luck I’ll be back before winter so you won’t have to winter with them (though even that would be good for them, I’m thinking).

Anyway, please let me know if this might be possible or not. And any advice you might have. I’m rather new at this taking-on-kids stuff. But you guys seemed to know what you were doing. Even if I didn’t always think so at the time. (Hoping you won’t remember some of that too much!).

Miss you all lots!

Hugs ’n slugs,

Ghost

PS – If and when you do meet the kids, if Fish tries to tell you his name is Ghost, box his ears or give his nose a good flick. That’s my name! He has to find his own.

PPS – Change in plan! I’m going to leave this letter for you at the Tarry. Shaper pointed out to me that I could – and should – simply use his ability to ‘send’ you a short message because this letter might take weeks or longer to reach you. Sorry again for asking so much on such short notice. I owe you guys so much. Hope one day I can pay you back somehow.

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Ghost's nightmare

Ghost tossed and turned restlessly on her pallet, her sleeping face troubled by some nightmare she was apparently having…

The otherworldly creatures were all around them, fearsome unnatural things, some huge and looming, some short and fanged with dangerous-looking talons, and all of them deadly. Particularly the one that appeared to be a wizard of some evil fashion.

And it was all going horribly wrong. For her.

Despite her throwing herself fully into the fight, Ghost felt like she was plowing her way through mud, dazed and confused, every strike of hers either coming up short or being deflected while around her the battle moved with disturbing frenzy. Kidalis had six of their attackers tied up, his powers of nature pulling them in and holding them down for the others to strike. Eustace was bellowing and laying on with his scythe, cutting a path through the enemy. Shaper glowed green fire and lashed out with his dimension-warping powers, ripping pieces out of the foe left and right. Even Tristan seemed to be holding his own, casting curses and eldritch blasts into the fray with devastating effect.

But worst of all, Tilly was racking up not only the most kills but the most important ones as well, first one of the bigger creatures falling to his sharash, then one of the smaller but equally fierce ones, and then the wizard-leader himself, taken down by a sneaky halfling move where Tilly’s shortsword leaped into his hand and he backstabbed the shrieking thing and smirked as it fell.

Frustrated, Ghost directed her fury at the big creature that kept slamming her into insensibility with its huge arms, thowing everything she had at the thing, marking it for certain death, determined to get at least one major kill in before the battle was over. But just as she finally had the thing bloodied and ready to fall, it suddenly exploded into a gigantic spray of ichor, drenching her from head to foot with its putrid otherworldly ickiness. Stunned, blinking, Ghost saw an apologetic-looking Tristan standing on the other side with what looked like a small fruit-knife in his hand. “Sorry,” the half-elf mumbled, “but you looked like you really needed the help.”

“Noooo!” Ghost wailed her frustration as things rapidly went downhill. Shaper gestured with his pinky finger and a creature flew apart into bloody fragments. Kidalis yawned and a horde of shrubs ripped the legs and arms from another. Tilly suddenly went down, felled by a desperate attack from one of the bigger creatures, only to be immediately revived by Eustace so that he could not only leap up and cut the big one down but also take out two others as his singing blade went cutting through all of them in a massive cleave. And Ghost – kill-less – could only stand and watch.

“Why are they getting all the kills? Tilly gets the most and the leader to boot? And Tristan gets the one that should’ve been mine?” Ghost slashed at the empty air in her frustration. “It’s not right. It’s not fair!”

“Yeah,” a voice from out of nowhere responded. “But then they’re good at this.”

Ghost looked around, but saw no one. She did however spot a single creature left standing. Desperate, she howled and charged the thing… only to see a bloody horn suddenly piercing outward from its chest just as she reached it. The creature’s eyes rolled up as it fell, revealing an ugly stinking goat on the other side, eyeing her with smug contempt, the remains of the creature dripping from its single horn.

“Nyaaaaggghhh!” Ghost howled, spirit-leaping as she awoke, her kukris instinctively drawn and lashing out… as she fell from above the inn, her blades slashing and smashing her way through not only the inn’s roof but the floor of the room she’d been sleeping in, sending her to the main room below where she crash-landed on a table of very startled dwarven merchants, prompting Tilly, who was sitting at a nearby table, to look over. “Ah swear Ghost,” the halfling sighed, shaking his head, “we cain’t take yew anywhere!”

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Where The River Left Them

I.

“Here she comes,” the older boy whispered, keeping his head low. The roof over Bayard’s stables was an ideal place from which to watch the comings and goings along Taverner’s Row. Stretched out on the side away from the street with only their heads peering over the roof’s peak, three urchins were doing just that.

“Twixt thinks this is a bad idea,” the girl beside him said. She was a full head shorter than the older boy and of a smaller frame, but quite wiry, as was the silent boy on the other side of her. All three were equal though in scruffiness and the ragamuffin look of their cast-off clothing.

The older boy ignored her, his gaze intent on his target. He had been shadowing the oddly-dressed ranger ever since she first set foot in Taverner’s Row. It had been obvious from the way she walked and gawked about that she was a stranger to the city. Probably some yokel from the outlands taking in the sights, he thought with a silent snicker. The elven style of her clothing in itself was not odd, being of the kind that many rangers tended to favor; it was simply odd on her as she was so clearly not of elven blood. More peculiar were the strange short blades at her sides, not so much swords as lopsided curved knives. The only thing that mattered though was that all of it, from the fine quality of the cloak to the crafted armor and footgear, looked expensive. Which meant money.

“I think it’s a bad idea too,” the girl went on stubbornly. “And Twixt says….”

“How come Twixt only says these things to you?” the older boy shot back, sparing the girl an annoyed look.

“’Cause you yell at him,” the girl muttered, looking back down to the street again. “That’s why.”

“I do not yell at him!”

The younger boy flinched but kept his gaze on the street. At the girl’s reproving “See?” look, the older boy blinked, then scowled, lowering his voice. “Well, not as much as he deserves anyways.”

“But why her?” the girl asked, nodding down towards the woman who was almost past the stables now. At that moment though the woman suddenly paused, as if sensing she was being watched, then looked up. Three young heads immediately ducked down below the roof’s peak.

“‘Cause she’s got money, that’s why,” the older boy hissed as they hunkered down out of sight. “Did you see the way she’s dressed? And those fancy blades she’s carrying? That stuff costs money.”

“But…” The girl hesitated, chewing on her lip.

“But what, Tween?”

“She’s a shifter,” the girl said, frowning, the markings on her face growing darker even as her longish ears lowered along the side of her head. “Like us.”

“She’s not like us,” the older boy growled, his own facial markings darkening as well, highlighting the differences between them. While the girl’s face matched the younger boy’s in pattern and slightly darker coloration, the older boy’s face was lighter and bore a distinctly different pattern. “None of ’em are,” he went on fiercely. “None of them give a damn about us. All we got is each other.”

“But Fish…”

“No!” The older boy glared at the girl. “I told you not to call me that. It’s a silly, stupid name and I don’t want it anymore. Fish get caught. And cut up and eaten. I’m not gonna get caught.” His jaw set with adolescent male certainty. “I’m fast and I’m quick and I’m gone before they ever see me. That’s why I’m—”

“She’s gone,” a small quiet voice said. The older boy and the girl looked up to see the younger boy peering over the roof peak.

“Why didn’t you say something?” the older boy growled, scrambling up to get a look himself. The street was still thronged with comers and goers, but the woman was no longer among them. “Dammit!”

“It’s okay, Twixt,” Tween said, crawling up between her twin and the older boy. She looked up and down the street herself, then turned to the older boy. “So what do we do now?”

“We find her again,” he muttered, moving down along the roof to the edge where it was close enough to the ground for them to jump.

“I still think this is a bad idea, Fi—” At the older boy’s warning glare, Tween sighed and began again. “I still think this is a bad idea, Ghost.”

II.

One of the things Ghost like about towns were the abundance of new things to see, taste and smell, which is why she liked to wander around and explore. And as usual people were frequently coming up to try and sell her things, like the rather scruffy looking urchin holding up a large but visibly rotting mudfish for her examination.

“Fish, miss?” The boy – a shifter child, she noticed – chewed his lip, looking embarrassed. “It… it was fresh a couple of days ago.”

“More than a couple of days, I think,” she said quickly, her nose crinkling at the putrid reek emanating from the thing. Probably the reason the boy hadn’t just eaten it himself, she thought, noting with how pitifully skinny he seemed under the layer of dirt and rags. The boy couldn’t be more than nine or ten. She wondered where his people were. “If you’re hungry,” she said, reaching for the purse at her waist, “I can—”

Instead of looking hopeful, the boy’s expression became even more embarrassed. “Catch, miss!” he said suddenly, tossing the fish to her. As Ghost caught it, the boy turned and bolted, yelling “I’m really sorry, miss!” over his shoulder as he disappeared into the crowd.

“I’m really sorry too, miss,” another voice said suddenly. Ghost turned to see another urchin, this one a shifter girl, her face noticeably similar to the boy’s, not only in look but in its woefully apologetic expression. The girl turned to where a large bearded barbarian was heading their way, angrily wiping fish off of his face with one hand and making a fist with the other. He was accompanied by two equally large barbarians with bits of rotting fish strewn in the fur fringes of their armor. The girl sighed, stepped back and pointed at Ghost, shouting a wide-eyed “She did it!”

In the heartbeat that Ghost realized she’d been set up, the girl had turned and disappeared into the throng as well. “I didn’t do—” was all she could get out before the barbarians howled and charged, hurling startled merchants and shoppers aside as they fell upon her.

At least they hadn’t drawn weapons, Ghost thought with relief as she instinctively blocked the first barbarian’s fist from reaching her face and shoved another back with a kick to his hide-armored midsection. She wasn’t really intending to hurt them – even when one of the managed to grab her from behind and another delivered a painful punch to her ribs – until a skinny arm snaked in between them, snatched something from around her neck, and slipped out again.

“It wasn’t me, you idiots!” she snarled, jamming her elbow hard into the one holding her and then hurling him into the one in front of her. She only had the barest glimpse of a figure fleeing into the crowd, the strands of a broken thong dangling from their fist, before Fish Beard was on her again, slamming his massive knuckles into the side of her head.

“I… keep… telling… you…” Ghost was saying moments later, punctuating each word with angry kicks to each of the groaning and bloodied barbarians lying sprawled in the street, “it… wasn’t… me!”

“Frothgar believes you,” Fish Beard said, wincing as he held up a hand to ward off any further kicks. He frowned, looking around at the circle of curious townspeople keeping a respectful distance from the combatants. “Then who is throwing bad stink fish at Frothgar?” he demanded, looking for a new target for his wrath.

Ghost felt for the missing pouch which had been jerked from her neck, then narrowed her eyes in the direction she had seen the culprit fleeing, the markings in her face darkening visibly. “The unluckiest little thieves in Idyllrise,” she growled, a path in the crowd opening before her as people took one look at her face and hurried to get out of her way.

III.

Twixt and Tween were waiting when Ghost made it to their hideout under the back steps that led to the upper floor of Blue Jerik’s gambling den and brothel. The twins looked up anxiously as he scrambled beneath the steps to crouch beside them.

“I got it!” Ghost said triumphantly, digging his prize out of his tunic and tossing it on the ground between them.

“That’s not her purse,” Tween said, frowning at the small leather pouch with the broken thong. Beside her, Twixt was looking away, his arms wrapped around his knees as he hugged them to his chest.

“I couldn’t reach her purse,” Ghost said defensively. “She was turned the wrong way and I only had a second. Anyway,” he shrugged, “this is better. They usually keep the valuable stuff around their neck.”

“So, what’s in it?” the girl asked, curious in spite of herself.

“Don’t know yet,” Ghost said. “Didn’t want to chance opening it till I got here.” He picked the pouch up again and weighed it in his hand, fingering it lightly. “It’s definitely got something in it though.”

“Well, open it already,” Tween said impatiently. “I’m hungry. And so is Twixt.” As if on cue, the younger boy’s stomach growled, but he only hugged his knees tighter and buried his face against them.

Pulling the thong strands loose, Ghost opened the pouch mouth and upended it. Two small dark objects fell out, clinking metallically against each other as they hit the ground. The two young shifters stared, and even Twixt peeked up a bit over his knees.

“Arrowheads?” Tween picked up one of the sharp-pointed things and turned it over and over in her fingers, then turned her gaze on Ghost accusingly, bitter disappointment welling up in her eyes. “We went through all that for a couple of arrowheads?”

Ghost picked up the other one and examined it from different angles, hoping that it would somehow turn into gold or silver, but the thing remained crude dark iron. “Maybe… maybe they’re magical,” he offered, desperately clinging to the first straw that came to mind. “Maybe…”

“She was gonna give Twixt money for food,” the girl said sullenly, throwing the one she held back to the ground. “I heard her. We could’ve been eating by now!”

“They’ve got to be worth something,” Ghost insisted, his jaw setting stubbornly as he picked hers up and returning the two of them to the pouch. “Why else would she be carrying them around with her like that? Huh? Answer me that!”

“We gotta give ’em back,” the younger boy suddenly said, his voice barely audible.

“Are you crazy?” Ghost said. “After all the trouble we went through? You want to give ’em back? This…” he gripped the pouch tightly in his fist “…this is all we got.” Shoving the pouch inside his ragged tunic once again, he crossed his arms and hunched over, glowering at the ground. “The only way she’s getting ’em back is if she pays us for ’em.”

“She’s gonna come after us,” the younger boy went on, shivering as he spoke. “And she’ll find us too.” He hesitated, then looked to his sister. “I… I think she was in that dream I had. The one with the big cat that walks between.”

“I don’t wanna hear about your stupid dreams and your stupid cat,” Ghost shouted, slugging the younger boy in the arm. To which Tween responded by fiercely slugging Ghost twice in his own arm. “You leave my brother alone!” she growled, her fist up and ready for a third strike.

Ghost was silent and tense for a long moment. “I’m gonna go get some food,” he grumbled. “Wait here.” He started to crawl out, then hesitated, seeming to shrink in on himself as he looked back. “Don’t worry. I’ll… I’ll figure something out. I promise.”

When the older shifter boy had gone, Tween put her arms around her brother, holding him close. “He doesn’t mean it,” she murmured. “He just doesn’t understand, is all.”

“Ghost did something wrong, Tween. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. I can feel it.”
Twixt looked up at his sister with wide, worried eyes. “We gotta fix it somehow, even if it makes Ghost mad.” He shivered again. "We gotta, or the cat won’t come.

IV.

It would seem, Ghost thought to herself, watching the pursuit coming hell-bent up the street below her, that Idyllrise was suffering from a veritable plague of feral shifter youngsters turned thieves. This one, a boy of about twelve or so, was attempting to make off with an entire shank of mutton over his shoulder, hotly pursued by an irate dwarven butcher shouting and waving a cleaver and by what she assumed was the butcher’s wife, cursing and waving a nasty-looking skinning blade.

Concealed behind racks of drying meat strips atop a neighboring butcher shop, Ghost had been watching for the two shifter urchins who’d set her up. And while this boy clearly wasn’t either of them, she’d wager a crown to a copper piece that he probably knew them. Which made him worth following. And catching.

Moving quickly from the open drying bins out onto the roof itself, Ghost began running parallel to the pursuit, leaping nimbly from rooftop to rooftop over the narrow spaces between the buildings. Even laden as he was with his ill-gotten shank, it was clear that the boy would soon either outrun or outmaneuver the butcher and his wife. Which he did only two blocks later, ducking sideways into the shadowed entrance of a clothier’s shop and hiding as the furious pair ran past, cursing and brandishing their cutlery until they vanished around the corner. When the boy finally reemerged, Ghost dropped silently from the roof to land right in front of him, startling him almost to the point of dropping his prize.

“That would’ve been impressive,” Ghost observed drily, grabbing the boy’s upper arm in an iron grip, “if you’d gotten away with it. But you didn’t.”

The boy’s eyes widened as he looked up at her face, the wiry muscles in his skinny ragged-clad arm suddenly tense beneath her fingers. But then his jaw set stubbornly and his eyes narrowed as his ears dropped back along the sides of his head. “I’m not giving it back!” he growled, trying to sound fierce even though his voice cracked embarrassingly on the ‘not’.

“I don’t want your pilfered sheep’s leg, boy,” Ghost said, waving a dismissive hand at the hefty shank still resting on his shoulder, “though I imagine the butcher folk you stole it from feel differently about the matter.” Tightening her grip on his arm, she nodded back in the direction he’d come from, keeping her eyes intent on his. “Let’s go find out, shall we?”

“Huh?” The boy blinked, confused for a moment, then tensed again, testing her grip this time. When it became clear that there was to be no slipping out of it, he immediately stopped. “Give you half to let me go,” he offered, biting his lip and looking desperately hopeful.

“A generous offer,” Ghost replied, her mouth quirking wryly, “but no. I will, however, make you a counter-offer.” She leaned in close so that her face was barely a finger’s length from his. “I’m looking for two shifter kids. A boy and a girl, maybe nine or ten years old. Look a lot alike. You help me find them, I’ll pay the butchers off and you keep the leg.” Standing straight again, she slowly eased her grip on his arm, though not completely letting go. “Help me find them before nightfall and I’ll give you enough money to eat anything you want for a month.”

The boy’s eyes met hers, wary but searching for a long moment. It struck Ghost that there was something familiar, in his look, in his face, even in his posture. She began to study him, trying to see beneath the unkempt hair and skin fur and the layers of rags and grime. The boy was distinctly uneasy with her sudden scrutiny, but remained still. When her grip eased just a little bit more though, he exploded into a wild fury of twisting, scrambling, kicking and clawing, filling the air with cursing half the words of which even she hadn’t heard before.

“Okay,” Ghost muttered, hefting the screaming struggling urchin up bodily and securing him – stolen leg and all – under one arm as she began heading back up the street. “The butchers it is, then. Cleavers and skinning knives and all.”

V.

From the shadows of a buttress of the temple of Shandaleen, the twins watched as the visibly annoyed shifter ranger made her way up the street, a struggling and cursing Ghost locked securely under one arm.

“I told you she’d find us,” Twixt said gloomily, retreating further into the shadows. “Now we’ll never be able to fix it.”

“We gotta rescue him," Tween whispered, watching in anguish. At her brother’s uncertain look, she dragged him back out again to where they could watch the shifter’s approach. “He’d do the same for us,” she said fiercely. “You know he would. And he’s right about one thing…” her brown eyes locked with his, intent and determined "…all we’ve got is each other.”

“But what’re we gonna do?” Twixt asked, his ears flicking anxiously as their angry victim came ever closer. “She’s stronger and faster than all of us together. And Ghost can’t help us.”

Tween looked up and down the street, her face stripes darkening as she frowned in desperate thought. It was actually getting hard to think with all the chanting and noise coming from the other end of the street. Where a religious procession was emerging from the temple, priests and monks and incense-wafting thurifers, carrying their most holy relic on its noon-day public display route. Her eyes grew wide as she looked back to her brother. His grew wide as well, but for completely different reasons.

“No, Tween!” he cried, his dark coloration paling even under the grime. “That… that’s a really, really, really bad idea!”

“It worked once," she insisted, grabbing his hand and pulling him after her. “It’ll work again.”

VI.

“You’re more trouble than you’re worth,” Ghost growled at the squirming urchin under her arm as she made her way up the street. She half-wanted to take away the mutton leg he was still clinging to, but the dwarven butcher would probably want it back. Adding to her annoyance, a religious procession was entering the street from the other end, making the busy street even more crowded.

“And you’re ugly!” the shifter boy growled back defiantly, continuing to try and slip free of her iron hold around his waist. “And you smell funny too!”

Ghost was about to box his ears again when a small voice near her suddenly broke in with “The blessings of St. Mungo on you, sister.” Ghost looked down to see a small hooded figure, wearing the robes of a novice of Shandaleen, head down in supplication, holding up a wooden bowl containing three rather over-ripe mung-fruit, offering it to her. “Please share in the fruit of St. Mungo this day.”

“Uh, thank you but no,” Ghost replied, trying to move around the novice before she got caught in the procession now moving up the street. But the novice quickly moved with her, blocking her way. At the same time, another novice, face hooded and head down, carrying a similar bowl, went past them both, apparently in search of other prospects.

“Please, sister,” the young voice appealed, standing his – it sounded like a boy – ground and holding the bowl up to her all the more insistently. “It would displease the goddess greatly to refuse a gift of St. Mungo. Especially today!”

“Very well,” Ghost sighed as she gave in and started to reach for the least overripe fruit she could see… only to realize that the urchin under her arm had suddenly stopped struggling. Suspicion quickly began putting pieces together and Ghost switched gears, her hand moving not to the bowl but the novice’s hood which she abruptly jerked back, revealing the shifter boy who’d framed her with the rotting mudfish.

“You!” Ghost growled, only to suddenly sense things being hurled into the air behind her. Not at her, she realized as she saw mung fruits flying through the air over her head… towards the procession which was now almost upon them. The first fruit hit the high priest leading the procession right in the face, splattering to pieces and leaving his face and robes purpled with juice. Before Ghost could turn, the second hit the holy relic being carried by four appalled monks square in the middle, knocking it to the ground.

“BlessingsofStMungobeuponyou!” the boy mumbled hurriedly as he shoved the bowl into her free arm and then ran behind her where he joined the other novice – the girl shifter, her face now revealed as well – the two of them now pointing at Ghost and shouting to the enraged priests, monks and acolytes, “She did it!”

VII.

To Ghost’s surprise, the shifter ranger didn’t drop him but instead only tightened her grip around him as she took off in pursuit of the twins, even as the mob of outraged clerics and acolytes pursued her. Damn stubborn, this one, the boy thought grumpily to himself as he was bounced along against the ranger’s hip. And buffeted by startled streetgoers too slow to get out of her way. But the moment he was waiting for finally came when the twins, who had been deftly slipping through and among the ever-shifting gaps in the crowd, abruptly split off in different directions into even denser masses of people. The ranger growled in frustration for the briefest moment, then dropped Ghost and his ill-gotten mutton summarily to the ground as she veered left, going after Tween.

It was the smarter move, Ghost thought as he quickly scrambled to his feet, shifting the mutton to his left shoulder as he dug inside his ragged tunic. Tween was the more likely of the two to have what the ranger was after. Except that neither of them did.

“Hey, lady!” Ghost yelled after her, the pilfered pouch now dangling from his upheld fist. “You looking for this?”

The ranger glanced back at the sound of his voice. In the briefest instant, her eyes narrowed at the pouch in his hand, and then she whirled around and was charging at him with grim intent. That oughta let the twins get away, Ghost thought as he took off on the opposite direction – now he just had to get himself away. Which was going to be extra tricky he realized as he found himself heading straight into the mass of howling clerics with the ranger pressing ever closer on his sorry ass. Really damn stubborn, the boy cursed as he darted between the flapping robes of two acolytes in the front, yelling “Stop her! She’s crazy!” only to hear them yelp as they were shoved aside behind him. He had been counting on the crowd of angry priests and monks to make the ranger break off pursuit. From the sound of things behind him though, all he could count on now was that they might slow her down some. Which meant coming up with an alternate plan. In a hurry. In a really big hurry, he realized as he suddenly broke through to the other side of the clerical mass and the street once again opened up before him.

Running at full tilt up the street, dodging between carts and startled citizens, Ghost searched desperately for an idea, anything that could shake the ranger off his sorry tail. At the sight of an ox cart hauling away refuse down a side street, an idea suddenly came to him, and he could already hear Twixt whining about it being a really bad idea even as he veered off towards the palace gate. And see Tween folding her arms and nodding in agreement.

“Like I’ve got any good ones?” he muttered, increasing his pace as the slope of the street began to turn higher. He just hoped the damned thing would be where it usually was this time of day.

VIII.

“I didn’t do it!” Ghost snarled as she shoved a rather fat monk backwards, sending him sprawling into the knot of priests who’d managed to keep up the pursuit. Whirling about, she caught a glimpse of the boy – still stubbornly hanging on to his pilfered mutton – ducking into a side street.

The street led upwards, towards the palace area, she realized as soon as she was on it. Bad move, boy she thought as she made her way up it, relentlessly following the path of startled and confused streetgoers he was leaving in his wake. The closer he got to the palace, the more he was going to stand out and the harder it’d be for him to hide.

Except that, when she caught sight of him once again, he wasn’t hiding. He was hanging on to the back of a huge cart making its way slowly up the hill. As she ran up, closing the gap, two things suddenly hit her. The cart was leaving a truly foul reek in its wake. And the boy wasn’t merely hanging on – he was struggling to pull out a lynch pin that was holding the cart’s back side in place.

“No!” Ghost shouted, even as the boy finally jerked the pin free and the back of the cart fell open, freeing its load of stinking nightsoil to spill out in a wave into the open street before her, sending pedestrians cursing and screaming and fleeing in every direction to get away from the foul flood.

Ghost hesitated, her nose crinkling up fiercely at the smell of the flowing brown mess now blocking her way, but the boy’s triumphant smirk as their eyes met though was too much to let pass. Spirit leap! she thought quickly, thoroughly enjoying the way the boy’s expression changed from smug to startled as she suddenly vanished and then reappeared on the cart wall opposite from him.

“Game’s up, you little thief,” Ghost said evenly, eyeing the boy with narrowing gaze. “Hand it over. Now!”

IX.

“You want it?” Ghost shot back fiercely, bringing out the pouch with its dangling thong from inside his filthy tunic. He held it up just long enough for the ranger to recognize it, then hurled it towards the putrid muck filling the street behind them. “Catch!”

The boy was only able to enjoy the ranger’s startled look for a moment. To his astonishment, the ranger moved in a flash to the very end of the cart wall, gripped it with one hand and reached out with the other, stretching herself out to her greatest possible length, snagging the falling pouch with the tips of her fingers.

Panicking, Ghost flung the mutton shank at her while she was still stretched out and unable to dodge. The heavy meat hit her square in the chest, breaking her hold on the cart. “No!” the ranger screamed, glaring at him with a look of pure vengeful intent as she fell into the stinking muck.

Ghost knew better than to hang around and gloat. Scrambling past the cart’s driver, who had been yelling futilely during the confrontation, the boy darted up the street. Getting away was even more important now, he knew. If she hadn’t already been determined to get him, she’d be even more intent on it once she…

A blood-curdling scream of rage split the air behind him just as he reached the end of the street, almost plowing into a patrol of the city guard. “Watch out!” he panted, running past them. “Crazy lady back there. Very dangerous. You’ll need more men.”

It was a shame about losing the mutton shank, Ghost thought with some regret as he kept running. He’d have to steal something else for the twins so that they could eat tonight. But at least he still had the arrowheads, feeling inside his tunic to where he’d put them in his own pouch, whatever they really were. The ranger’s stubborn determination to get them back had him more convinced than ever that they had to be valuable.

Now, he thought as he glanced back anxiously over his shoulder, if he could just keep out of her reach long enough to find out why.

X.

“Ah, Lord Havengard,” the Captain of the city guard said as Kidalis approached. “I’m glad my man found you.”

“What seems to be the problem, Captain?” the young noble asked, looking around the market square, sensing some level of pertubation in the air.

“Well, we’ve been called to respond to a number of disturbances in the area.”

At that moment, two ragged street urchins, shifter children by the look of them, ran quickly past, followed by a trio of angry barbarians, the biggest of whom was yelling “Stop! Frothgar is wanting to beat you much badly! Stop is now!”

“I see,” Kidalis said, glancing as the group was in turn pursued by a number of guards. “How may I be of assistance?”

“Well, it seems that a member of your company is somehow involved in all of this,” the Captain went on. Just as a slightly older shifter urchin ran past, a pair of angry dwarven butchers waving cleavers and a burly cartman wielding a shovel hot on his tail. The Captain sighed and dispatched a trio of guards to follow them.

“May I ask which of my company is—” Kidalis began, stopping when a familiar figure dashed into the square, reeking and covered in muck, with a mob of howling priests and clerics intent on catching her. “Nevermind,” he sighed as the Captain directed the remainder of his men on pursuing them.

“From what witnesses have said,” the Captain went on, “she’s been involved in all of the incidents that’ve been reported.”

“Well, the good news is that she’s not intent on killing anyone,” Kidalis said, rubbing his temples between thumb and middle finger of his right hand. At the Captain’s questioning look, he merely shrugged. “She doesn’t have her weapons in hand. The bad news is that she’s going to keep this up until she gets whoever or whatever she’s after. My advice is to not get in her way.”

“But the disturbances,” the Captain protested. “The assaults on the citizenry, the disruption of commerce. And the damages, my lord. The damages!”

“I give you my word, Captain,” Kidalis said, placing a reassuring hand on the man’s shoulder, “that she’ll pay for any and all damages done and for any losses incurred.” The young noble shrugged once again. “It’s the best I can offer you. There’s really nothing to be done when she’s like this. Just be thankful it’s only her.”

Turning to leave, Kidalis hesitated, then glanced back. “If however you see a halfling with a long polearm and a strange accent getting involved, send for me at once.” He shuddered at the thought, muttering “We’d probably end up getting banned from the city.”

XI.

Ghost watched as the urchin boy backed up against the wall overlooking the river, looking franticly about. But the way to the left was blocked by the dwarven butchers and the carter, and the way to the right was blocked by Frothgar and his companions, who had the two younger urchins struggling in their grip. And even if Ghost herself wasn’t blocking the street leading up to the wall, the mob of clerics and monks behind her most certainly did, though they were as much intent on not letting Ghost get away as they were the boy.

“There’s nowhere left to run, kid,” Ghost said as she walked towards the shifter boy, her palm held out and up expectantly. “Hand them over. Now.”

But the boy only glared at her, then suddenly scrambled up the wall to stand atop it, looking down at the river moving swiftly below.

“Don’t be stupid,” Ghost said wearily, annoyed that the boy was too stubborn to know when the chase was over. “Everyone knows you city people never learn how to swim. And even if you did, a river like that is way too much for a stripling like-”

“That’s what you think, lady!” the urchin shot back, giving Ghost a final defiant look before turning and launching himself out from the wall, dropping at once into the rushing waters below.

“Ghost!” the two younger urchins cried out, struggling harder in their captors’ grasp. As Ghost turned in confusion at the sound of her name, the girl suddenly sank her teeth into one barbarian’s forearm, causing the man to howl in pain as he released her. Free, she ran to the wall and scrambled nimbly up to the top where the older boy had been moments earlier, looking over the edge in dismay. “Ghost!” she wailed, distraught.

The ranger hauled herself up to stand beside the urchin girl, gripping her securely by the scruff of her neck to make sure she didn’t do anything equally foolish. Searching the rushing water, she quickly spotted the small figure swimming with intent even as he was carried away from the crowd that were all now peering down from the wall top. A flicker of memory seemed to tickle the back of Ghost’s mind, something about the way the boy was swimming triggering a deep impulse, not only to catch him but something familiar about the situation, as if she done this before.

Cursing some choice elven words, Ghost quickly stripped off her arms and outer gear, tossing them to a startled priest. “Guard these if you value your life,” she growled. Glancing at Frothgar who had come up beside her, she added fiercely “And you guard those other two if you value yours!” And then she was gone, diving headlong into the river and then resurfacing with fast strong strokes in the hot pursuit of something from her past.

Ghost

(More to come)

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A letter from the Faewyld

Dear Arun, Jariel and Vondyr,

I hope this letter reaches you. I mean, I really hope this letter reaches you, because if it doesn’t, it means that we never got out of here. So where’s ‘here’? Good question, ‘cause we’re not completely sure ourselves. Kidalis thinks it might be the Faewyld, partly because of how it feels and partly because the place we’re in seems very familiar to him, from a long time ago back when he kinda disappeared for a while. I think I told you guys about that, right? And anyways, it’s sure not like any place I’ve ever been. I mean, it just feels different, like the air itself is just oozing with magic. And everything’s just…. more. Colors are more vibrant, smells are sharper, and even the ground under your feet feels more… alive? It’d be interesting if it wasn’t so scary. I don’t mean I’m afraid or anything! You know me better than that. And yes, Vondyr, I know there’s things in the world I should be afraid of, but that doesn’t mean I have to be. But anyway, I remember all those stories I’ve heard about the Faewyld. About how sometimes people go in and when they come out months or even years have gone by. If they come out at all, that is. ’Cause sometimes they never come back. And, so, okay, well that does scare me. A little, anyways.

Oh, and even if I’m not completely sure where we are, I am sure of one thing: it’s all Tilly’s fault. But I’ll get to that later.

First I gotta tell you about the war. We won! You’ve probably heard about that by now, at least some. And we all got through it okay, which is the important thing. Even that stupid goat of Tilly’s is still around, even though I kept hoping the Orcs would get it and eat it. Oh, and you would not believe what Eustace has now for riding around in battle on. It’s called a rhinocerous. I never saw one before and I don’t think you have either since they come from way south, I think. Imagine the ugliest cross between a bull and a horse you’ve ever seen, except twice as big, with thicker legs and with one big horn on its snout instead of two on its head, and that’s kind of what it looks like. Pretty scary in battle, I tell you, if it’s charging down on you. Eustace took it as a prize when we killed the top Orcish commander, Gruzhgarn. And Eustace looks pretty awesome riding around on the thing. I don’t think he’s named it yet. But I still prefer Blackwind though. He’s way better looking than anyone else’s mounts.

Oh, and when I say ‘we’, I mean us and a special ally that Tristan got to come help us: Seowyn’s Bear! It was the bear that actually killed Gruzhgarn. And this time Tristan didn’t have to make any deals with any demonic or devilish voice, which is a relief, ‘cause even though we needed the help I don’t want him making any more deals with those guys. It always ends up bad in the stories and songs you hear and I don’t want Tristan to end up in one of them as Tristan the Tragic or anything.

We all did pretty good in all the battles. Of course I was always amazing. But Kidalis was pretty good too. He’s really good at tying up the big guys, making it hard for them to maneuver or turn away from him while the rest of us attack. I’d hate to have to be on the receiving end of the stuff he can do, especially since I’m all about being able to move around. Eustace was pretty awesome, at least when he forgets about all that don’t-give-in-to-your-baser-instincts stuff and lets his baser instincts come out and kick ass! Tilly was also pretty awesome at times. I can never understand how a guy that small can get around so fast and strike so hard. And you never know what he’s going to do so it’s even harder for the enemy to deal with. I just wish he wasn’t so annoying. Tristan was really helpful. It’s like he’s got this deck of cards and whenever we need an ace, he can pull one out. You just have to make sure to ask the price first. I mean, not because of Tristan. It’s some of those voices of his which you gotta watch out for. I just wish he knew more useful spells. Maybe it’s just his nature, but half the time it seems like he learns stuff not because it’s gonna be useful but just because it’s interesting, to him anyway.

And like I told you, we’ve got Crys back now, except that he’s Shaper now. And his powers have grown during the time he was away, and it’s always kind of intimidating to watch when he reaches out and just… twists stuff? I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like there’s a way things are supposed to be, and somehow he can reach into that and scramble it all up, so that they end up not at all like they’re supposed to be. But it’s kinda odd how he never seems to get worked up, no matter how hot the fight is getting. Which is probably for the best since the one time I did see him get worked up there wasn’t any fight at all going on and we were in a tavern and I was worried he was gonna scramble everyone in the place. But still, he’s good to have on our side, even if I don’t really understand him much.

It’s also good ‘cause Shaper can do ranged-fighting stuff, which we’re kinda lacking in as a group. Tristan can do some too, but it seems like half the time we’re always coming up short in that kind of fighting, especially at times when it turns out that’s what we really need. I mean, I almost wish I had learned more about using a bow and stuff. Except that a bow wouldn’t really help all that much, and it’s just not the same as getting up nose to nose with an enemy and hacking him to pieces, and seeing that moment in his eyes when he realizes it, you know? Yes, Vondyr, I know I’m not supposed to think like that, but it’s just the way I am, okay? You can take the shifter out of the wild, but you can’t take the wild out of the shifter. Okay, so nobody ever really said that, but it’s still kinda true.

But anyway, I’ve gotta say I don’t like war much. At least, not the way it was being fought down there. We kept ending up in spots where there was no way to move around, like on stupid islands surrounded by water or stupid forts surrounded by Orcish hordes. I hate not being about to move around. But at least the war’s over and we won, so it’s all good and done with. The commanders took special notice of our role in the fort victory and now Kidalis is a Captain and so he’s all fluffed and more pompous than usual. The rest of us are all Lieutenants, for whatever that means since we don’t have anyone to command. Besides, titles feel weird, you know? Lieutenant Ghost? Not for me. I just wanna be Ghost. We did get some really nice-looking cloaks out of it though, with the Owl Bear symbol embroidered on them, so that’s not so bad. And I got this thing called a survivor’s belt, which comes in handy since I always seem to end up getting downed at least once in a fight. And no, it’s not ‘cause I’m being reckless! Well, I mean, not more than usual anyways.

Oh, and there’s this young guy – kind of a kid really – named Renny who’s kind of got a crush on me now. He was one of the soldiers at the fort. Just ‘cause I kind of kissed him before the final battle. It was just for luck, Jariel, so quit laughing! Anyways, he brought me some flowers before we took ship, and so I kind of kissed him again. Might see him again sometime. Don’t know what I’ll do then. He’s human and he’s… kind of fragile?

So anyway, since the war was over, we decided to go after Limba, ‘cause something in the course of all the fighting kind of woke up Tilly’s sharrash and it started singing. Well, not words or anything, but kind of a musical sound? So according to Tilly’s grandmere’s prophecy that meant it was time for Tilly to confront Limba. Which is why we’re now stuck in the Faewyld. Except for that damned goat of his, which is still back in the world. It’s not fair!


Sorry, had to put this away for a bit. Picking up now where I left off. About it all being Tilly’s fault.

So anyway, we head off to Darkmoss Bayou where Tilly’s Grandmere Odetta lives, wanting to see what she has to say. By the way, she’s bossy for such a small lady, and she pinches really hard! Turns out she was expecting us because she knew somehow that the sharrash had started singing. How? I don’t know. It’s an old-wise-woman thing I guess. It’s what they do. Besides being bossy and pinching people, that is. Anyway, Grandmere Odetta gives Tilly this fishhook on a silver line and a green glass bottle and tells him Limba’s gonna come after him – and the rest of us – three ways, first in mind, then in the flesh, and then in spirit form. But when he goes into spirit form, we have to follow him to the “other side” to finish the battle and capture his spirit in the bottle or else he’ll just keep coming right back.

Now this is why it’s all Tilly’s fault that we’re stuck here. When his Grandmere said we’d have to go to the “other side”, I thought she was talking about the other side of the swamp! Nobody said anything about it meaning we’d be going to the Faewyld!

Anyway, we decide we’d pick the ground to fight Limba on since Grandmere Odetta said we wouldn’t have to go hunting him because he’d be coming after Tilly. So we pick some this place in the swamp where it’d be hard for him to move around once he came in and where there were some ruins that gave us places to stand on and hide behind, and we work on it to make it as ready as we can. That night we got the first attack, then one in our dreams. It was kind of intense, but we all got through okay. Which was good because soon as we’re awake again Limba is coming at us in the flesh. That was a much tougher fight. I mean, like I told you before, this Limba’s as big as an island and has all this magic going on around him to make things even harder with plants and stuff attacking you. But Tilly was Limba’s main target and at one point it actually swallowed Tilly, and we thought he was a goner for sure but Shaper managed to bust him out. Kinda literally as he ended up blowing a hole in Limba from the inside. The fact that that by itself didn’t kill Limba tells you just how tough this thing was. It looked like even wounded as he was Limba was gonna swallow Tilly up again as he had Tilly in his jaws when I ran up, hacked my way up his back in a truly awesome way and killed him!

The funny thing was, I wasn’t trying to kill him. I actually felt like Limba was rightfully Tilly’s prey – you know? – and that Tilly should be the one to kill him, but I guess I got so caught up in the hunt mindset that I forgot and the next thing I knew I was standing on top of a dead Limba with my kukris in his vitals. I felt really kinda bad about it afterwards. I felt even worse when I realized that I was gonna have to apologize. To Tilly! For being awesome! It wasn’t fair! Why does everything with him end up being so annoying?

But anyway there wasn’t really time to think about all that ’cause as soon as Limba was dead this green shadow kinda rose up out of his body and headed for the water, and before any of us can say anything Tilly hooks the shadow with the magic hook his Grandmere gave him and the next thing I know is all of us are hanging on to that silver line and getting pulled into the water after this shadow of Limba…

…except that when we come up, we’re somewhere else. I mean, it was the same place we were before, but not exactly? I mean, the ground was sort of the same, except that none of the things we’d done to prepare it were there anymore? And everything was… wilder? And most of all, the ruins weren’t ruins but a standing castle! Which Kidalis later said he recognized. Which is what led him to think we were in the Faewyld.

But we didn’t have time to think about any of that because Limba was suddenly back to life. But different. Not an island-sized gator anymore but a large gator-ish man-like creature in a loin cloth. And it could talk, telling us we’d made a terrible mistake coming after it and stuff. And right away we start fighting again. Most of it was kind of a blur ‘cause there was so much going on with Limba summoning gators and nasty vine-creatures and doing psychic stuff. Mostly I just did what Kidalis told me to do, attacking whatever he said to attack since he seemed to know more about this place than anyone. It was a long fight and kind of dicey in places. Eustace was kept pretty busy keeping us up and fighting. I actually found that Tristan and I can work pretty well together in a fire-and-ice kind of way. Kidalis managed to keep Limba from focusing solely on Tilly which probably saved Tilly’s skin more than once, and at the same time coordinated our attacks to cut off the magical conduits that were feeding Limba his power. And Tilly was kind of awesome was well, his sharrash singing so loud the entire swamp could hear it as he whaled on Limba again and again, taking some pretty bloodying blows himself in the process.

Once we cut off Limba power sources though, we finally wore him down. I had a moment where could’ve finished him off. It was right there for the taking. But I learned my lesson from the last time and didn’t let myself get carried away – it was rightfully Tilly’s kill to make and so I stepped back to let him take it. Which he did, taking off Limba’s head in one final powerful swipe with his sharrash. And the best thing about it? Besides taking down this incredibly nasty creature that had terrorized Tilly’s folk for generations? I didn’t have to feel guilty anymore! It was all even! I didn’t have to apologize to Tilly!

(more to come)

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