Seven Kingdoms: Seowyn's Crossing

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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For Your Eyes Only

My lord, as per your request I have gathered information on the Fire Wasps squad of Owlbear Company who have been causing you so much annoyance of late. They apparently only came into the enemy’s service recently and so not a great deal is known about them, even by the enemy commanders they serve, but I have endeavored to garner what information I could from within the enemy encampment, to add to the reports we’ve gotten from the survivors of and witnesses to their recent assaults on your forces.

Apparently these Fire Wasps were adventurers, nominally in the service of one Baron Greenfields of Seowyn’s Crossing in Summerland, before they came south to join the enemy’s war against your forces. Why they have come is something of a mystery, as they were apparently not sent by the Baron. One suspects that they may have offended the Baron in some manner and found themselves suddenly needing to seek their fortunes in other lands, a story that is not uncommon to find among the many groups who have come to the south to join the enemy’s cause.

The make-up of this particular squad is rather unusual in two regards. Firstly, the squad consists of a human, a minotaur, a half-elf, a halfling, a shifter and, confirming the recent reports, a shardmind, hard as that may be to believe. And secondly, in spite of their diverse origins, they are all of an age and have apparently – with the exception of the shardmind – known each other since early childhood.

One other oddity of note is that the Fire Wasps appear to have taken some vow of chastity, though none of them speak of having done so. But none have ever been known to seek dalliances of any kind, not even with any of the camp followers so abundantly in attendance in the enemy encampment. What this means, I cannot say, but will continue to investigate as it is highly unusual.

Their leader is the human, one Kidalis Havengard, a member of the lesser unlanded nobility of Summerland and the only one with a prior connection to the enemy forces, having an older sister, Daria Havengard, who is serving as a lieutenant and currently commanding a keep you are besieging. Has apparently had the usual martial training but has no command experience other than leading this group of adventurers. He is however unusual in that he is apparently fey-touched and has displayed on multiple occasions powers one usually associates with a warden. Is believed to have aspirations to marry the Baron’s daughter, which may explain why he and his companions had to suddenly leave the area. The Baroness seems to have taken a particular disliking to him, but whether this is due to his being landless and fey-touched or to some unwelcome impropriety on his part is unknown.

Noted weaknesses: Vanity and a tendency to overreach.
Recommendation: Dangle a chance for glory in front of him and lure him – and the squad he leads – into a trap.

The next most significant member of this squad is the minotaur, one Eustace, who strangely enough appears to be a priest of the goddess Shandalene. Exact origin unknown, but was apparently orphaned as a child and raised in a monastary, which may explain his dark and brooding nature. Formidable on many levels, the minotaur is a fearless fighter and a truly gifted healer. Possesses some unusual armor, though its exact nature and history he does not discuss with others. Has a strange disregard for wealth, which has made him of particular interest to beggars, and to the camp followers though he has not been known to give them his custom. Perhaps as a result of this, he has become the subject of much speculation among the camp followers as to his endowment, on which considerable wagers have been placed.

Noted weaknesses: Moments of conscience and an obsessive abhorrence of the unnatural that could be used to distract him
Recommendation: Take this one down first, at all costs. He keeps the squad up and fighting even when their individual members are being felled, often turning the tide of a clash almost single-handedly. Take him down and the rest can be overcome.

The shifter is known only as Ghost, comes from an obscure mountain tribe associated with a minor totem, possibly a snow weasel. A vicious fighter, she is much stronger than she looks and quite deadly with a pair of kukris. Favors moving rapidly about on the battlefield and assaulting multiple targets. She is most dangerous when one of her comrades is attacked, charging to avenge them from across the battlefield with extreme ferocity. A strange attachment on her part, considering that her most commonly observed interaction with them is to punch them for perceived slights.

Noted weaknesses: Impulsiveness, extreme competitiveness, and a restless nature. Also quick to react to insults.
Recommendations: Provoke her with insults, separate her from the others so that she cannot charge to their rescue, and then surround her so that she cannot move about.

The halfling is one Tilly Thistleshanks, comes from a disreputable family of swamp smugglers and poachers that plague the river south of Seowyn’s Crossing. Is believed to be half-mad, which makes him highly unpredictable in battle. Usually fights with a type of pole-arm called a sharrash, but is known to be particularly deadly in close combat with a short sword when he gets behind an enemy. Is apparently thought highly of by other halflings in the enemy camp, due to some legend associated with his bloodline regarding a fearsome creature named Linda. Exact nature of legend is unknown though it is rumored to have something to do with singing. Could possibly involve a mating ritual of some kind.

Noted weaknesses: Strange attachment to a riding goat and a large ugly rat which he carries with him at all times. Also exhibits a tendency towards acts of insane recklessness.
Recommendations: Avoid close combat, but do not let him get out of sight. Suggest taking him out with ranged attacks as early as possible.

The half-elf is one Tristan Holdfast, son of a minor brothel-keeper’s daughter in Seowyn’s Crossing. Evidently the by-blow of some liason with an elven ranger who still visits from time to time. Was originally believed to be addled but now believed to be possessed by a host of spirits, some of whom are diabolic in nature. He seems harmless in his manner, but this is now believed to be merely an act on his part. A sorceror of some skill, he is potentially the squad’s best ranged fighter. No appreciable martial skill, but nonetheless has a dagger of diabolic origins that seems to compensate for that at least at close quarters. Usually hangs back on the fringes to support the others with ranged attacks.

Noted weaknesses: His diabolical connections make him suspect to the enemy’s commanders and to others as well, including his companions. He is also frequently distracted and sometimes fails to focus, though this too may be an act.
Recommendations: Suggest contacting demonic realm to see if they can be drawn in to aid us against this one. Need to find out if he’s playing a double game and might be enticed to betraying the others. Also, may be able to use his diabolical associations to throw suspiscion on entire squad in enemy commanders’ minds and have them expel the squad from their ranks. Otherwise, dispatch a designated three or four-man ranged attack team to take him out early on.

The shardmind is called Shaper, though apparently it may have earlier been known as Crys. Possessed of formidable psionic powers that allow it to warp reality even at a distance. Can also both teleport and alter its appearance. Apparently it was gone for a period and has only recently rejoined their ranks. Origins unknown, but suspect that it involved the sacrifice of a childhood companion, a son of some peasant farmers that no one was likely to miss. Believe that the half-elf was behind this, possibly the result of some early pact with his diabolical associates. Does not seem to be under the half-elf’s control, but this may be simply deception, part of the elaborate game Holdfast appears to be playing.

Noted weaknesses: None. Should be considered highly dangerous. Need to find out more about shardminds.
Recommendations: Concentrated ranged attack by multiple magic-casters early on. You may only get one shot so it must be as effective as possible. Failing that, take out the half-elf so that he cannot direct the shardmind. One its master is gone, it may turn on the others as a mindless engine of destruction, or might be subject to control by one of our own magic-casters.

Summation:

While this Fire Wasp squad presents no real threat at the strategic level, they have proven to be a problem at the tactical level and are likely to become an even bigger problem in the future. The encounters between your forces and this squad have been costly and the outcomes, though sometimes close, invariably to the enemy’s advantage, boosting the enemy’s morale at the expense of your own. So neutralization or elimination of the Fire Wasps would seem to be highly advisable.

As encounters where they have sought your forces out seem to work in their favor, would suggest that a defensive or reactive approach is unlikely to yield results. Would further suggest that your best bet would be something along these lines:

(1) Lure them into a trap, using some bait that Havengard will be unable to resist
(2) Once they’ve taken the bait, split them up so that they cannot come to each others’ aid
(3) Take out the minotaur first so that he can’t heal the others, and keep him from being revived himself
(4) Take out the half-elf and the shardmind next, leaving them with no ranged fighters and eliminating the chance of diabolic intervention
(5) Take down the rest separately, but let none escape.
(6) Deal with them at your leisure

At the same time, I would suggest a second prong, aimed at casting suspicion on them within the enemy camp with incidents that make each of them seem unreliable, undisciplined and above all, untrustworthy, culminating with a major incident that reeks of both diabolic involvement and treachery, with evidence pointing at the half-elf and his shardmind, resulting in them being expelled from the enemy camp. I can arrange this myself upon receiving your order. And of course, my usual fee. With this two-pronged approach, if your forces fail to eliminate the Fire Wasps in the field, my machinations will cauterize them from within.

I continue my work in your service and await your response.

R

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A letter from the south

Dear Arun, Jariel and Vondyr,

Just wanted to write and let you guys know how we’ve been doing down here where the war with the Orcs is going on. We got here okay, though we almost got chomped up by that Limba creature that Tilly has this fate-thing going on with. I think he kind of left out a couple of important details when he first told us about him. Like the fact that this “gator” is as big as an island and has all this creepy supernatural stuff going on around it! Well, we managed to fight it off – barely – though some of the others who were there at the time weren’t so lucky.

But anyway, we made it down the river to the Sea of Sunken Fires, and then down along the coast to where the main encampment is. It’s like a city of tents and pavilions and everyone’s armed. We ended up signing on with this band called the Owlbear Company. Their leader is this Captain Merei Greenspear. We each had to prove ourselves to her before she’d take us on, though, so I ended up fighting a duel with her. Don’t worry! It was just to first blood. I gave her a pretty good run until she finally nicked me with her spear. I’m just glad I wasn’t having to fight her for real. She’s almost as good as Jariel. I guess we must’ve made a good impression because they set us up with some equipment we didn’t know we need, like a pavilion tent and stuff.

It’s really interesting, seeing all of these different fighting groups from all over. Most of them seem friendly enough, though we did run into this one group with an attitude, especially this halfling corporal of theirs. Couldn’t pound him though since fighting in camp is really frowned upon.

We also ran into a couple of familiar faces. Drum Ketterin from the Crossing, for one. He’s a corporal now, so he seems to be doing okay. And more of a surprise, we ran into Candac, the guy who was running a gang of robbers at that bridge I told you about, remember? The one who ended up getting away from the guys we left him with? Seems like he’s decided to try to make something of himself and he’s the camp’s quartermaster now. People can sometimes really surprise you, if you give them the chance.

Anyway, we got our first chance at action barely a day or so after we got settled in. They sent us to clear out this abandoned tower up the coast that had been taken over by Orcs. Let me tell you, I’ve learned a couple of things about Orcs. They’re not all that bright, but they’re strong and aggressive and they don’t seem to be afraid of anything. Kind of like Eustace except that they’re ugly and they smell. And some of them are really, really hard to kill. They’ve also got this nasty thing where, just when you think you’ve killed them, they make one last attempt to take you with them. I mean, you can cut an Orc’s head right off and he’ll still make one last slash or stab at you. Unless he’s carrying fire bombs in which case he’ll try to leap on top of you to burn you to death. So you can’t ever let your guard down, not even for a second.

But we did take the tower and we even managed to capture their leader alive. Which I thought was us doing pretty good for our first time out. I wanted us to take the leader right back and turn him over to Captain Greenspear, but Kidalis and Eustace had other ideas. They learned from interrogating One-Eye (I don’t know what his real name is as I don’t speak Orc, but he only had one eye) that a meeting was going to take place on this ialand between some Orcs and some Sea Devils about forming an alliance. So of course Kidalis gets all “We must go and stop this!” and Eustace is all “Yeah, yeah!”. I’m still for us taking the Orc leader back, but Kidalis is all stubborn about it and so we end up taking the Orcs’ boat and leaving One-Eye tied up in the tower while we go out to this island. I think it’s crazy, but I go with them. I mean, what can you do when someone you’re in a group with gets all crazy stubborn noble on you? So I went along with it. I mean, I couldn’t just let them go by themselves and get themselves killed, right?

I still think it was a foolish idea though. I mean, we’d just had a pretty tough fight, and we’d used up a lot of our tricks and spells and stuff. And now Kidalis wants us to go out and take on not only another band of Orcs but some Sea Devils as well? By going out in a rowboat? On the water? Where all these Sea Devils could be waiting under the surface and we’d never know? In a rowboat??? I mean, doesn’t this kind of sound like a really, really bad idea?

And even though this letter is kinda proof that we didn’t all get killed, it’s only because of some extra help. Which is part of why I’m writing. Some weird stuff went on that I’m not sure I’m feeling all that warm and comfy about.

It started when we were rowing out to the island (we left One-Eye tied up in the tower). Tristan and Eustace had cast these spells that allow them to comprehend languages, which would let at least the two of them understand whatever the Orcs and the Sea Devils said. Assuming that we could somehow sneak up close enough to hear them without being noticed. But while we were rowing over, Tristan got that distracted glassy look he gets when one of his voices is talking to him. I don’t know which one he talked to – there’s quite a few of them, it seems – or what was said, but something had to have gone on between them because when we got to the island, the Orcs who were already there didn’t seem at all alarmed at our arrival. Instead, they seemed to be expecting us, or rather, they seemed to think that we were the Orcs from the tower that they were expecting. Weird, right?

Anyway, the spell or whatever it was worked enough for us to get ashore and among them before they realized that anything was wrong, so we at least had the advantage of surprise. And believe me we needed every advantage we could get because Tristan, who was the only one who seemed to understand their leader, gave us the signal to attack just as soon as we were spread out among them. It was a hard fight, even tougher than the one at the tower. Their leader had some kind of sword that seemed to cast lightning, one Orc was some kind of storm shaman and another who must’ve had some troll blood or something because he got up again after Tilly killed him (but I managed to toss him into a fire before he could fully regenerate, so that took care of him). And there were other Orcs with clubs and flasks of alchemist’s fire to deal with.

So the fighting was pretty heavy when suddenly this big glowing multicolored crystal starts poking its way out of the ground. At first we thought it was their shaman summoning something, but from their consternation at its appearance apparently it wasn’t. The next thing we know the crystal suddenly explodes into a thousand shiny bits, pretty much blinding everyone for several seconds, and then the green bits of crystal gather and merge all back together and suddenly it’s Crys! (Except that he calls himself Shaper now.)

Long story on Shaper, which I don’t have all the details on yet. But he looks different now with some red crystal things around his eyes and some other stuff around his waist – kind of like a glittery solstice tree until you notice the legs. And he sounds even stiffer than I remember when he talks. And he’s got these really scary new tricks where he can do stuff to people that gives me the shivers just thinking about it. So he’s like the second weird thing that happened on this mission.

Anyway, Crys – or Shaper – had somehow known he’d be coming right into a fight and so didn’t need any explanations, which was good because we were too busy fighting to explain anything. And having him suddenly there really turned the tide in our favor, which was good because some of us – me in particular – were getting pretty chewed up. But the fight ended with us killing most of the Orcs except for their leader and one other who we managed to take alive.

So now you’d think we’d take our new prisoners with us and get off the damn island before the sea devils show up, right? Wrong. Now Kidalis wants to stay and take on the Sea Devils! I’m really not liking this, but of course now there’s a storm coming in and it’s going to hit before we can get even halfway back to shore, and even I don’t relish the idea of getting caught out on the water in the middle of a storm. So we’re stuck between the sea devils who are coming and this storm that’s coming even faster. And I’m wanting to jump up and down on Kidalis’ head yelling “I told you this was a bad idea!” but there isn’t time for even that!

Now I have to kind of blame myself for the next weird thing that happened. I mean, even though he didn’t say anything, it was pretty obvious that Tristan got us some kind of help from one of those voices he hears when we were having to take on the Orcs. And I knew from some other things that Eustace and Kidalis were kind of uneasy about some of the things these voices of Tristan’s were having him do. But in spite of all that, I was thinking that we were going to need all the help and edge we could get to take on these Sea Devils on top of everything else we’d done that day. So I asked Tristan if maybe one of those voices of his could maybe help us out in some way.

I know, I know. I was really uneasy about doing it but at the same time I couldn’t think of anything else that might help. I mean, Eustace has his thing with Shandaleen and all, which is really good at keeping us healed up and standing and all, but it doesn’t seem to help a whole lot in the divine-intervention-in-a-battle ways the bards are always singing bout. And Kidalis has his calling-on-the-wild thing, but like I said, he’d already used up a lot of his tricks and probably wasn’t going to be able to come up with more than some trip-over-a-tree-root or summon-dire-turnip thing. And neither Tilly nor me have got anything like any of that.

So I asked Tristan to maybe ask if any of his voices could help. And he did. And I don’t know which voice he asked, but I know he had to cut a deal with whichever one it was. And that whichever one it was, it was really not the sort you ever want to make any kind of a deal with. I mean, I didn’t actually hear what Tristan agreed to (the voices are only inside his head, not anyone else’s) but based on the nature of the ‘help’ we ended up getting, it was pretty obvious that there’s some bad dealings going on there.

But anyway, the only thing Tristan told us then was that one of his voices said it would send some help. There wasn’t any time after that to ask questions, so we spread out and hid in different places on the island (it wasn’t a very big island – you could just about throw a rock from one side to the other if you had the wind behind you). We’d barely gotten ourselves concealed when the sea devils emerged from the ocean. Most were armed with some kind of harpoon, but their leader, who seemed to be priest of some sort judging by his ceremonial-looking robes, had a trident.

We were okay until Tilly stepped on a twig or something. The priest touched this shell he was wearing around his neck and suddenly there was this burst smelling of brimstone and this big ugly red thing with yellow eyes, fangs and huge claws – Eustace said it was a carnage demon – appeared out of nowhere and went right after Tilly. And if that wasn’t enough, the storm finally hit, adding to the chaos. I still managed to be the first to take out one of the sea devils out though, with my axe of sundering. Chopped him right in back of the head.

After that things got hard to follow, what with the fighting and the storm thundering and raining on everything. The priest was bad enough, but even the ordinary sea devils were nasty to deal with. I found out the hard way that they have this really scary attack where they spear you with a harpoon while in the sea and then somehow start dragging you towards them, even though there’s no rope or cord you can see. And they have extra harpoons so that even if you escape the first one and break it, they can still hurl more at you. It’s very annoying!

We were okay at first. And I saw Shaper use one of his powers to warp reality around one of the sea devils and mulch him into so much fishy pulp, which was impressive and scary at the same time. But then the priest bellowed out something and more sea devils appeared and things were looking a lot less okay. That was when Tristan’s ‘help’ showed up. Suddenly another burst of brimstone went off and this other thing appeared, except this one was kind of dead-grey looking and had wings and was covered all over with nasty sharp spines, kind of like a flying zombie porcupine (Eustace says it was a spined devil). It then looked right at Tristan and hissed “What is thy will, o lord?”

See what I mean be weird? And definitely not comfy? And how now we’re all wondering just what Tristan has gotten himself – and maybe the rest of us – into? Not good, Very much not good.

But even with this devil’s help, it was still a tough fight. Especially when the priest summoned this giant shark that leapt up and dragged the devil under the water. I actually ended up taking out the demon with my mother’s frost kukris. Actually shattered the damned thing into pieces killing it. Also used this trick they can do – creating a burst of freezing cold – on the giant shark. Didn’t hurt it all that much but it did immobilize it for a bit by freezing the sea around it, which let the devil attack it from the air by hurling spines at it and Shaper to warp reality around it and actually teleport it onto the island, which was also pretty impressive, given that it was a giant shark. It was the devil that finally finished the shark off though, after which it bowed to Tristan and then disappeared with a flash of brimstone once again.

Like I said, Tristan has a lot of explaining to do.

So anyway, we finally got the upper hand and managed to subdue the priest and one of the ordinary sea devils after we killed all of the others. We found some stuff they must’ve been intending as deal gifts for the Orcs. Mostly some pearls and a coral necklace (which would look pretty nice on me, I’m thinking). There was also this sealed box, but we decided not to open that just yet.

And finally Kidalis said we could go back to shore. I wanted to ask if he didn’t want to wait for the rest of the entire sea devil nation to show up, but I was afraid he’d say yes, so I kept quiet. So we take our new prisoners back to shore, only to find that our original prisoner – the one-eyed Orc – had escaped. Apparently another Orc who’d managed to get away from the first fight came back to free him. I’m a little annoyed but again I don’t say anything. We did – in spite of everything – kill a lot of Orcs and sea devils and capture some of their leaders. So one getting away isn’t much of a price to pay. And all of this is definitely going to get us noticed by the camp leaders and make the Fire Wasps a name amongst the other groups.

But all that aside, I’m still kinda troubled. A lot of weirdness on this trip. Tristan making deals with strange voices only he can see, at least one of which appears to have infernal ties. Deals that might involve the rest of us. Crys suddenly showing up again as Shaper, more powerful than even before and more than a little scary. Especially since he seems even less… emotional? And Kidalis getting like he wants to just leap straight from the frying pan into the fire at every opportunity is kind of worrisome. And people think I’m impulsive! And reckless. I mean, sure, sometimes, maybe a little, but not like this!

Anyway, I better close this and get it to this ship captain who’s heading north. Some cousin of Tilly’s I think. I hope you’re all well. Miss you guys lots!

Hugs ’n slugs,

Ghost

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Going North - Where Once Was Home

On the morning of Carolan the 20th, the Fire Wasps awoke to find a snowstorm raging outside the mouth of the cave they’d taken shelter in. But this was like no snow they’d ever seen before as the flakes falling and swirling about were as black as dead ash, darkening the sky with their thickness. Tristan sensed that there was something deeply unnatural about the storm, that the snow was somehow charged with necrotic particles. Ghost remembered seeing it at a distance occasionally when she was traveling with Arun and his rangers. Arun had warned her not to venture into it or totems forbid let it touch her. The elf explained that its presence indicated that a gate to Shadowfell must have opened nearby or that a powerful undead creature was close at hand, and every time they witnessed it he immediately got the band under the nearest shelter. “We don’t want to go out into that,” she said to the others, relating to them what Arun had told her. If there were any doubts on her companions part, they were quickly dispelled by the sight of the occasional insect or bird shriveling up in mid-flight and falling into the river whenever the dark flakes touched one. Eustace asked Ilikan if he had ever seen this phenomenon before, but the young goliath, who was watching the ominous storm with wide eyes, shook his head and said no, not in his lifetime.

After a couple of hours though, the black storm abruptly stopped and was replaced by a soft falling of normal white snow. Wherever the black snow had fallen, what remained quickly dissipated, but Ghost cautioned everyone to take care to avoid falling into any patches which might remain unseen beneath the white snow now laying down a new cover over things.

It was quite cold when the Fire Wasps set out again, but with the storm over they were able to make decent headway. As they continued northward, they found that the geothermal effect of the river was slowly diminishing. The river continued to flow unfrozen, the thermal effect on the banks around it were visibly lessening, the snow and ice encroaching more and more the further they went. When night came, they found shelter in a bower of trees.

The next morning, the sky remained overcast but the weather was warmer. Ghost’s spectral snow leopard had not made a reappearance, but the young shifter was beginning to see and smell things about the land that felt familiar. Taking the lead, she constantly searched ahead for signs of life – footprints, a lost arrow, a wisp of smoke from a cook-fire – but there was nothing.

Sometimes Ghost would talk to Ilikan who was swaggering along in adolescent confidence with his new great axe over his shoulder, as well as his spear and a couple of javelins and a shield of hides stretched around a wooden frame. Curious, she asked him how well he knew his weapons and how he had been trained.

“Well, I haven’t really fought with this axe before,” the young goliath replied, nodding up at the weapon he’d acquired. “Otherwise I’m sure I would’ve killed far more of the goblin scum that we encountered.” He grinned confidently as he added “But I’m pretty handy with my spear and my javelins.” He proudly showed them to Ghost, particularly his spear with its haft banded with metal, apparently of dwarven make.

“It’s not like this crude goblin axe,” he went on. “But the crude goblin axe was quite helpful for beating on crude goblins,” he admitted merrily.

“When we get the chance,” Ghost said, “I want to see how much you know.”

“I wouldn’t want to dazzle you,” the goliath youth said, apparently with no sense of how pompous he was sounding.

“I don’t think you have a serious worry,” Ghost replied, her mouth quirking wryly.

“I’m sure you’re not familiar with the advanced goliath forms of combat,” Ilikan went on, trying not to seem condescending. And failing utterly. “But I’m sure…” The enormous youth paused, then offered “You seemed very adequate in battle.”

Ghost’s arm had already whipped back when Kidalis grabbed it in a discreet but firm grip. “When we camp tonight,” the young noble said, giving Ghost a no-you-can’t-kill-him look, “maybe, Illikin, you can give us a few tips.”

“Well, it’ll just be the tip of the iceberg,” the clueless youth said, gesturing loftily as they continued walking. “The very basic training that any goliath youth would receive in our village.”

“Of course,” Kidalis said pleasantly, finally letting go of Ghost’s arm when he was confident she wasn’t in danger of punching the boy’s lights out.

“You know,” Ilikan went on, as if explaining why he’d only be showing them the most basic stuff. “Outsiders. No offense.” The adolescent seemed to lose his train of thought for a moment, then said proudly “My father is a very great warrior. I’m nowhere near his skill level.”

“I’m sure you’ll have time to get there,” Kidalis assured him.

Later, when they made camp that evening, Ghost innocently offered to spar with Ilikan. Kidalis quickly stepped in yet again, wanting to make sure the boy survived any sparring that took place. The young noble took the goliath lad through a few practice rounds, offering helpful tips on the best ways to react and counter certain types of attacks which Ilikan admitted to finding intriguing.

The next day, once they had set forth again, Ghost began to see things she actually remembered from her early childhood as having been near the village and her excitement rose, and in spite of everything a hope rose in her as well that maybe someone might still be living there, someone who would know her. But with each familiar sight, her hopes began to fall. Groves of fruit trees that she remembered as once having been neatly tended were now long gone feral, the snowfall on the ground beneath them marred by the myriad branches and limbs that had fallen over the years, along with the remains of many seasons of fruit that had rotted away uncollected. Hunting stands where village hunters had once laid in wait for passing game and fowl had gone fallow and now stood visible, no one having been there to properly camouflage them. Places she remembered as once having houses out in the open on the outskirts of the village were instead silent scenes of desolation, the houses having long ago fallen in on themselves – no one apparently having been there to repair them for a long, long time – leaving only jagged snow-covered husks of broken timbers and weathered beams.

No one said anything as they finally came upon the silent remains of what obviously had been a village at one time. The nearer they drew, the more it became painfully clear that no one had lived there for a very long time. A small group of feral goats pawing at the snow in the hopes of finding some uneaten grass beneath were the only living things to be seen. A memory from childhood made her instinctively stop to listen for the lead goat’s bell, but there was only the sound of the wind and an occasional uncertain bleat from one of the goats. An image filled her mind of a tarnished, knocked-about brass thing tied on with a bit of rope, something else that lay lost now somewhere, lost and forgotten by all but one.

As they continued, a few houses showed signs of having been burned, but other structures were surprisingly intact, sheltered at least partially from the elements by a cliff face that rose up sharply on one side and a thick stand of ancient evergreens that had been left around the others. Ghost ducked her head hopefully into the intact ones and poked around in the shells of the others. This one she remembered had belonged to Siri, the village smith, with her powerful arms and gruff good humor. That one had been Farshot’s – she remembered having a mighty pine cone battle with his sons Skunk and Kieper. But in each she found nothing, only silence and the flashes of memory that belonged to a girl named Squirrel.

It was strange, though, Ghost thought, that there were never any bodies, neither outside nor inside any of the houses she checked. Neither were there any goods, not any of the things that one might expect to find in a place where people had once lived. Whatever had happened here years ago had left the village stripped bare of any sign that anyone had ever lived there. But ass they neared the village center, she was surprised to find some things that had not been there before. Things, she thought as her ears drew back and the stripes around her face darkened with anger, that should not be there at all.

Positioned around the center of the village, three totem poles now stood, each one jutting up from a large snow-covered mound at its base and each covered with hideous goblinesque carvings depicting leering goblins, hairy hobgoblins, menacing bugbears, bargests and the like. Beyond them though, Ghost could see the longhouse where her mother and family once lived, and it infuriated her that the goblins had profaned her village by erecting these wooden abominations in its very heart.

“I do not like these things,” she growled, drawing her swords and looking around warily.

“Agreed,” Kidalis said, casually drawing his glave and readying it as he walked towards the nearest pole. As he drew near, the young noble saw the first hint as to what lay beneath the snow covering the mound at the pole’s base: a hand sticking up out of the snow, the skin dark and dessicated, still clinging to the bones in spite of the years that had passed. He began prodding the mound with the butt of his glaive to clear the snow away.

Seeing this, Ghost approached another pole, where she in turn found a hank of dark hair poking out of the snow like a patch of dead moss. When Eustace went to join her, Ilikan accompanied him. “I’m sorry, Ghost,” the young minotaur murmured, placing his huge hand on her shoulder. Tristan’s gaze was on the poles themselves. Fascinated by the carvings, he headed towards them. Tilly for his part hung back, gripping his sharrash and watching their rear.

At the first mound, Kidalis had managed to uncover a leg and was prodding in search of other bodies when the temperature, already freezing, abruptly dipped to a bitter, penetrating cold that cut straight to the bone, and a weird buzzing sound filled the air as suddenly all three totem poles began humming, the snow mounds at each one cracking open from within as gaunt and blackened figures began to emerge.

“What foul sorcery is this?” Ilikan gasped, boggling in horror.

“They are the undead,” Kidalis warned, stepping back quickly and whipping his glaive around.

Eustace stepped forward, wincing at the unbelievable cold assaulting him as he neared the nearest creature. Just being close to the thing was enough for him to suffer the debilitating effects of the cold it radiated. He quickly invoked a resurgent sun at the foul abomination, cursing silently when it missed.

Ghost was particularly horrified when she realized that the undead they faced were shifters who had been turned to zombies, shifters of her own village. The one coming at her she recognized as Siri, the blacksmith, and as the thing that had been Siri slammed at her with one great frozen arm, she only barely ducked out of the way in time.

“Why does it have to be the undead?” Tilly muttered as he ran up to help Eustace with the undead shifter attacking him. The young halfling flinched as he too was suddenly inundated with the biting cold radiating from the zombie, causing his attempt to crushing surge the thing to miss.

Lashing out with her swords, Ghost attempted to take her zombie – It’s not Siri… it’s not Siri! – down with a twin strike, but only managed to hit with one sword and only slightly damaged the thing, the blow sending a shock up her arm as if she’d struck a massive block of ice. Kidalis slashed at his attacker with resilience of life, also managing a hit but also only inflicting a minor blow. Ilikan, uncertain and rattled, hurled his javelin at another zombie only to miss it badly, causing the young goliath to cringe further in his chagrin. Tristan chose to hurl fiery bolts at undead, cursing as he missed and then pulling the spell back with a quick sacrifice to Caiaphon.

The shifter zombie facing Kidalis suddenly struck the young warden with its frozen forearm, immobilizing him as a shock of cold went all through him. And then the three totem poles suddenly vibrated and hummed ominously once again as three more undead shifters emerged from the snow mounds at their bases. One lunged for Kidalis and another for Tilly but fortunately both missed. The last one lurched forward, turning sightless eyes all about it as it searched for a living target.

Bellowing in his rage at the foulness the undead presented, Eustace invoked a lance of faith at the nearest totem pole, managing to damage it but taking cold damage from the nearest zombie as well as it lashed out at him, striking him in the side and immobilizing him. One of the newly emerged zombies struck at him as well but stumbled stiffly and missed, as did the one attacking Kidalis. Tilly, suffering visibly from the cold being inflicted on him, cleaved mightily at the zombie with his sharrash, cutting it down. The halfling then turned to cleave again at the totem pole but only succeeded in nicking it.

Disconcerting as it was to Ghost to see her fellow Fire Wasp cut down what had once been one of her fellow villagers, she knew it had to be done, that it was in fact what her people would have wanted them to do. Turning to the nearest totem pole, she dropped her off-hand sword and drew her axe of sundering, laying into the wooden abomination with a furious twin-strike. Her sword cut in deep, hacking a great chunk away from a hobgoblin’s face, and then her axe followed through, chopping the thing clean through. As the foul thing fell to the ground, she winced at the deep biting cold that bit into her as she turned to charge towards the third and farthest pole, the one closest to what had been her mother’s longhouse.

But the zombies continued to emerge as the two remaining totem poles shivered and hummed once again. The unnatural cold they radiated was taking a toll on the Fire Wasps, making it harder for them to press their attacks and to defend themselves. Kidalis managed to cut down the zombie lurching towards him, but another struck him from the side. Tristan also failed to dodge the zombie swinging at him, though fortunately the strikes it inflicted were minor. Illikan started to cheer as one of his spears lodged in a zombie, but when the thing simply turned towards him, seemingly unaffected by the spear sticking out of it, his cheer quickly faded. Eustace, beset by two zombies himself, was able to dodge their clumsy attacks but the cold was affecting him nonetheless. As it was Tilly, who had switched his sharrash to his off hand and drawn his sword to cut down a zombie from behind but missed, the radiant chill inhibiting his usual agility.

“Ghost, take out the totems!” Kidalis shouted, turning to face the zombie that had just clipped him. The young noble and Eustace both had their hands full, fending off zombies on all sides as well as the unnatural cold the things were radiating.

“Got it,” Ghost growled, readying sword and ax as she neared the pole nearest her mother’s longhouse. But at that moment, a strange mist suddenly emerged from the longhouse, flowing unnaturally against the wind. As the eerie mist swirled towards the fighting, it began taking on a vaguely humanoid shape, and the wind around it became filled with terrible whispers that threatened of pain and death.

Undeterred, Ghost closed on the furthest totem pole, leaving first one to the others. She hacked at it with her ax, chopping out big chunk, then hacked again in a desperate fury with sword and ax, cleaving it it two and felling it before it could summon any more zombies. Behind her, Kidalis shouted to Illikan, telling the goliath youth to take out the last pole even as he swung his glaive at a red zombie, invoking a weight of earth upon it. The zombie crumbled into pieces before him even as it clawed unsuccessfully at the young noble one final time.

Hearing Kidalis’ order, Illikan went after the final pole with his goblin great axe, hacking a great chunk from it. He looked pleased as the pole shivered and listed… but did not fall.

“Uhm, it’s still standing!” Tristan called out urgently, shifting to hurl curse and curse-bites at the red and blue zombies nearest him. His casting missed the red zombie but struck the blue one, severely damaging it. But unfortunately the thing still stood and was now turning its mindless attention towards him. And the pole he’d warned Illikan about suddenly hummed and shivered once again, calling forth yet another zombie that immediately lashed at the goliath boy with a frozen forearm, striking him grievously but fortunately failing to take him down.

Tilly set upon his zombie once again, felling it this time, and turned towards the last pole, intent on helping Illikan take it down. Kidalis however was still beset beset by a rather determined zombie, successfully blocking its assaults but unable to turn away from it.

The mist however was moving intently towards Ghosts, radiating a cold far worse than even that of the zombies, filled with a necrotic energy that she found to her dismay prevented her from healing. The young shifter gasped as the mist suddenly flowed over her, drawing her very life force out, the act of which seemed to give the mist more definition and substance, streaks of red seeming to appear all through it even as it left her bloodied and immobilized.

Eustace bellowed in frustration as he swung his scythe at the zombie in front of him, the unnatural cold throwing him off such that he missed the slow-moving creature twice. Another zombie suddenly lurched away from Kidalis and moved towards Tristan. Tilly struck it as it passed, as did Eustace, his scythe connecting this time and leaving the thing severely damaged and causing its strike at Tristan to miss. But while the young minotaur was distracted, another zombie struck him from behind, chilling him even further and leaving him immobilized. And Tilly himself, though suffering from being so dangerously close to the zombies he fought, slashed out once again and left the red zombie in pieces that fell unmoving back into the snow.

Bloodied, Ghost felt her shifter nature take hold and she attacked the mist in a fury with sword and axe. Her attacks however had little effect, even as the mist continued to draw her very life force out of her. The swirls in the thing grew redder still, and where the head seemed to be, she could now see Brekhu’s leering face forming, his dying curse seemingly made manifest now in the mist’s deadly assault on her.

Badly injured from the unrelenting zombie attacks, Kidalis called a healing on himself but even then remained still bloodied. The young noble grimly invoked a weight of earth on the nearest zombie, striking and managing to slow its advance, then quickly turned and used his glaive to thorn-strike the zombie attacking Illikan, his attack ripping the thing to pieces. Illikan, no longer under assault, turned and hacked the last pole yet again, taking more chunks out of it, but to the goliath boy’s chagrin the hideous thing remained standing, though it now wavered quite unsteadily.

Tristan was now suffering visibly from the cold, his pale features covered with frost. He drew his pact-blade and slashed at the zombie that was practically on top of him, but the dagger’s edge skittered ineffectually across the creature’s frozen flesh without penetrating.

Tottering but still standing, the remaining totem pole rattled and hummed weakly, but this time no zombies emerged. The mist, however, suddenly changed its shape, forming huge barghest-like jaws that snapped viciously at Ghost, but the shifter ranger managed to deflect them with her sword.

Bellowing in rage, Eustace invoked a radiant blast on the zombie in front of him, obliterating it completely. A red zombie however struck Kidalis – who seemed to be getting more of the zombies’ attention than anyone else – chilling and immobilizing him once again. But the tide was finally seeming to turn as Tilly slashed the red zombie from behind, cutting it down handily with his sharrash, giving Kidalis the needed respite to get his second wind.

Bloodied and suffering from the draining attacks, Ghost desperately slashed at the barghest-faced mist but missed. She then quickly ran backwards to get out of its range, hating the act of giving ground to the thing but knowing she couldn’t take much more of the draining it was inflicting on her.

Illikan, steeling his will and focusing, struck the pole with fierce determination, his great axe finally cleaving and destroying it “I got it!” he beamed, looking to his companions for praise. When he saw that everyone else was still busy fighting for their lives, he mumbled “As… if there was any doubt…” as he hurried to rejoin the battle.

Seeing Ghost’s situation, Tristan turned his attention to the demonic mist, striking out at it by invoking the vestige of mount valis. The mist seemed to shudder under his assault but did not turn away from Ghost, pursuing her even as she retreated, still on the attack. Its reddish swirls quickly enveloped the young shifter once again with the grasp of the cold grave, its cold and necrotic forces draining her further until finally, sword and ax still in hand, her eyes rolled up in her head as she shuddered and fell, limp and unconscious to the ground.

Seeing Ghost fall, Eustace quickly invoked a healing word on himself, then did an urgent life transference to his companion, reviving her enough that her eyes flickered open once again. But even with the minotaur’s healing, she was still bloodied. And worse, she was still within the mist’s deadly draining aura.

The last zombie attacked Kidalis, who was immobilized, but missed. Perceiving Ghost’s situation to be more dire, Tilly charged the mist with his sharrash, slashing through it. The magic of his weapon seemed to injure the swirling thing, pushing it back from where it had been over the shifter girl. Tilly pressed his attack, swinging at it again, but this time his slashes had no effect.

“Fire,” Eustace called out suddenly to the others, recalling something from his clerical teachings. “Fire or radiant energies can make vampiric mists temporarily substantial.”

Hurrying to her feet, Ghost found herself both relieved and annoyed – relieved at having been rescued from the mist’s draining swirls but annoyed that Tilly – Why did it have to be him? – was the one who’d pushed the thing away from her. I’ll thank him later, she thought to herself as she healed herself to the point where she was no longer bloodied. And then I’ll slug him.

Kidalis, looking distinctly annoyed himself at the persistance of the last zombie facing him, stepped back, drew a vial of alchemist’s fire from his cloak and hurled it at the undead thing even as it lunged at him with its jaws open to bite. As the zombie unwittingly snapped down on the vial, the briefest look of confusion lit up its deathly face just before a burst of greenish fire erupted in its mouth and a moment later its head exploded. When the rest of the undead thing slumped to the ground, truly lifeless once again, Illikan glanced at Kidalis. “That would be really impressive,” the goliath youth said with determined impassiveness, “if I thought you meant to do it.”

“What makes you think I didn’t?” Kidalis responded smoothly, casually brushing a bit of zombie spatter from his cloak as if this sort of thing happened every day.

Illikan shrugged, not rising to the bait. “I think our friends need our help?” he suggested instead turning back towards where the fight was still raging. “From beyond the trees, I hear some shouting and whatnot.” The goliath adolescent’s confident mask abruptly cracked however – along with his voice – when they came upon the sight of the other Fire Wasps harrying a blood-streaked mist in the form of barghest jaws intent on consuming Ghost. “What in the name of the mother of mountains is that?”

From his vantage point, Tristan invoked a curse at the mist, but missed. The young wizard quickly make a sacrifice to Caiaphon to draw it back, but it was for nought as his reinvocation missed as well. The mist was swirling furiouly, trying to get around Tilly who had positioned himself between the mist and Ghost. As the mist suddenly flowed over and above him, Tilly slashed up at it with his sharrash but missed as well.

The mist jaws then lunged forward and down, their cold and necrotic touch immobilizing and bloodying the shifter girl once more. But when Eustace invoked a lance of faith on the the mist, blasting it with a burst of radiant force, the swirling thing shuddered and suddenly seemed to become substantially more solid than before. Tilly immediately tried to take advantage of this sudden change even as the mist whirled around to attack him as well. His sharrash struck with a solid slash this time, actually bloodying the unnatural thing, but at a cost of the halfling taking cold and necrotic damage himself. While the barghest mist was distracted, Ghost hurled herself at it with a hunt’s end whirl of blades. Her attack however, while leaving it in worse shape than before, failed to take the unnatural thing down, at a cost of the shifter girl taking more cold and necrotic damage herself, standing but bloodied yet again.

Hurrying to join the fight, Kidealis draws his hand ax at hurled it at the foul mist, hitting it thanks to Eustace’s having made it less insubstantial. Illikan joined in as well, hurling a javelin at the swirling thin only to have it miss to his enormous chagrin, a feeling which was soon shared by Tristan whose eldritch blast missed as well. Ignoring the attacks from the other Fire Wasps, the mist turns its barghest face upon Ghost, whispering “Die!” as its jaws once again snapped around her. The shifter shuddered as her life force was drained from her and then slumped unmoving to the ground beneath the mist’s triumphant leer.

But before the mist could render itself insubstantial once again, Eustance, engraged at seeing his companion felled for a second time, quickly invoked another lance of faith upon it, the radiant light of his goddess’s benevolent force striking and destroying the foul thing for once and all, with Tilly instinctively ducking out of the way as the minotaur’s holy blast burst through the dissapated mist’s final swirls and over his head.

The evil threat finally dealt with, Eustace quickly knelt to heal Ghost, reviving her. When the young shifter opened her eyes, she felt as if a definite weight had been lifted from her, as if Brekhu’s curse, to kill her and her companions with undead made of her own people, had finally spent itself. And as she looked around, she saw the remains of the shifters of her village returning once again to normal semblances of death. It was still hard, seeing them in death, but not as hard as it had been to see them foully raised for an unholy purpose.

Kidalis, weary from having had to fend off so many attackers, collapsed on a log for a much-needed rest. Eustace turned to Ghost to ask what she wanted done with the remains of the people of her village. The young shifter frowned in thought for a moment. “It is not our custom,” she said finally, “but it would be better to build a pyre to burn them so that no one can ever again befoul them the way that evil barghest did.” She looked around the village for a moment, then back up at the minotaur. “You can use those houses that have fallen in on themselves for fuel, but leave the intact ones alone. They…” In her mind, memories, Squirrel’s memories, filled the village with those who had once made it live. “…they should be kept. They may be needed again. Someday.”

Ghost rose and turned towards her mother’s longhouse. It’s hard to see it so close once again, but harder still to bring herself to enter it. Memories, more memories, came flooding back with each thing she saw. The well where Asha would draw the water, teasing Squirrel that she wasn’t strong enough to pull it up yet. The tree where her father, as mild as he was, would teach her how to climb better, faster and higher than anyone else. The open span of ground where her mother would train the other Snow Stalker villagers in fighting techniques with their oddly curved blades for which they were known. In the end, she had to close her eyes to shut it all out before she could place her hand on the door.

It took a good strong shove to push the door, frozen in place by time and the cold, open and out of the way. Eustace put one of his massive hands on Ghost’s shoulder as she ventured inside. It helped to steady her at the sight of her mother, shockingly preserved, on the longhouse floor, her body cold and blue under the white fur but otherwise seemingly untouched by time. As she stared, Ghost noticed that her own breath was even more visible than before, a sign confirming what she felt, that for some reason the inside of the longhouse was even colder than the air outside.

Her mother was half covered by the body of an enormous bugbear, both of her kukri blades plunged into the body of the creature which must have fallen on top of her, pinning her there. A strong coating of frost glistened on both bodies, thicker the closer it was to the blades, and Ghost realized that these were her mother’s magic kukris, capable of calling forth great powers of ice. Her mother’s last defiant act – killing the enemy who was killing her – had inadvertently preserved them both, locked in the moment of their death. One less threat to the village would have been her only thought, even at the end. It was the way she had always been. It was the way she would have wanted to go. Silent tears of fierce pride froze on Ghost’s cheeks even as they formed, but she made no effort to wipe them away.

Eustace quietly backed out of the longhouse to let Ghost be alone. Once outside, the young minotaur started gathering the villager bodies and carrying them to where the pyre would be. The others had already searched the area and had found a bone hair comb set with topazes, along with two alchemically-treated whet stones. Frozen whet stones, Tristan deduced after he’d examined them a bit. Touch the stone to a weapon and it does cold damage to whatever it strikes.

Inside the longhouse, Ghost took hold of the bugbear’s frozen corpse and began to pull it off of her mother’s. There’s no better ending than to kill your enemy as he’s killing you her mother had once said. To which Jariel had later observed dryly Except killing him first. And not dying. As she tugged on the stiff bugbear body, it came away quite suddenly, the kukris still embedded in its chest. It was, Ghost thought later, as if her mother had finally released them from her grip. Ghost jerked the weapons from the dead foe and turned them over to examine them. It was the first time in her life she’d ever handled them, and she was startled as a layer of frost swiftly spread over her hands and fingers but she felt no cold. Frost-brand weapons, she recalled, that dealt cold damage. Clang them together sent out a blast of cold that immobilized opponents within their range and extinguished non-magical fires.

Ghost tucked the weapons away in her belt, then knelt down by her mother’s still form. “I came back, Mom,” she whispered as she picked her up to carry out to the pyre. Her mother seemed so small now, but in fact she had always been smaller than most. Ghost and Asha both had taken after their father in size and strength. It was only in Squirrel’s memories that their mother had been big. But it had been her mother’s ferocity that had made her who she was, and Ghost and Asha had inherited that as well.

When Ghost stepped outside with her mother in her arms, the other Fire Wasps turned to look. Even if they had now known who the dead shifter woman was, the resemblance would’ve made questions unnecessary. The frost steaming from her belt where she tucked the weapons, however, were a different matter, particularly as they were making tribal designs of frost into her clothing, but even those questions would have to wait. Ghost took her mother over to where the pyre was and set her down in the center. She took a moment to check the others, trying as much as she could to arrange families and loved ones together. It struck her, when she was done, that she had not found Asha among them, but she knew that by itself did not mean anything as others were undoubtedly missing as well, their bodies lost in the woods or dragged off by scavengers. Illikan assisted her as much as he could, the young goliath quiet and subdued for once as they finished their preparations.

As she knelt before her mother once last time, Ghost remembered, almost as an afterthought, to take her mother’s bone bead necklace from around her neck, staring at it as it lay in her hands. She was supposed to do this, she knew, but she could not remember why.

“It is only right,” Illikan offered, as if sensing uncertainty. “Unless your sister lives, you are chieftess now, yes?”

“Chieftess?” Ghost said. The thought had not occurred to her at all.

“That is what it means, does it not?” the young goliath youth went on, nodding at the necklace in Ghost’s hands. It was similar to the one she wore, but more elaborate, with a particular piece added that bore the symbols for tribe and leader.

“It’s what it meant,” Ghost acknowledged, not wanting to think about it. “When there was a village to be chieftess of.”

“This cannot be all of the people who lived here,” Illikan insisted, wanting to encourage her. “I have seen other snow leopard shiters. I told you before.”

“It’s not the same.” The young shifter frowned. Hope was not something she felt comfortable with. Not with all of the faces she’d seen, all remembered and all dead now. “They’re probably related, but…”

“Perhaps,” Illikan shrugged, finally seeming to realize that he wasn’t helping.

“I have to…” Ghost paused, looking at the remains of the village around her. “Someday there’s going to be more of us, here, again,” she said finally, her jaw setting in sudden decision as she vowed “I will bring them.” She put the necklace away in a pouch. It was not right to put it on. Not yet. But someday…

Eustace was removing the goblin and bugbear corpses, along with the remanants of the profane totem poles, to the edge of village. “Do not burn them,” Ghost said when she saw him. She had another use for them, but she did not say what, doubting that the young minotaur would approve.

When the pyres for her people were finally ready, Tristan used his magic to ignite them. Ghost noticed that the effort taxed him though. The fight had taken a lot out of all of them.

Ghost watched in silence as the flames from the pyres rose into the air, sending her family and people back to their ancestors on the wind. She looked around now and then to see if Snow Leopard would appear, but it did not. Perhaps she had done what was expected of her and there was no need. It was sometimes hard to know. Snow Leopard was not big on explanations.

“There’s no way…” Ghost said to her fellow Fire Wasps, tears coming unbidden as she watched the pyres blaze up before them. Emotions churned within her, making her words choked and jumbled. “You all had homes… at one point. Some of you still do. Actually most of you still do,” she amended, thinking of Kidalis’ father and sister, Tristan’s family at the Tarry, and Tilly with his seemingly myriad relations.

“Actually, we all still do,” Kidalis replied somberly. “And that does include you as well now, Ghost.”

“All that was…” Ghost turned to look around at the village, silent and empty. Her mother’s frostbrand kukris weighed heavily at her waist, as did the necklace in her pouch and the memories flooding her mind “…I carry with me now.”

“Do the memory proud,” Kidalis said, putting a hand on her shoulder.

“Find a way to pass it on,” Eustace added.

“A little Ghost?” Kidalis’ mouth quirked wryly as he glanced at Eustace. “I have mixed feelings about that.”

“Our shaman is named Leodaia Watches The Clouds,” Illikan put in. “She says that all trees fade in winter, but that every winter is followed by a spring.”

“Yes?” Ghost said, looking slightly puzzled.

“Just because your village is empty now,” the young goliath said encouragingly, “that doesn’t mean that there won’t be a spring.”

“I know,” the young shifter nodded. She looked again to the empty huts that lay along the village’s edge. “One day I’m going to bring people back and we’ll start again,” she said with determination. A bit of uncertainty crept into her expression though as she added “Once I figure out how to do that.”

“I’m pretty sure it involves a hut and furs,” Illikan said, trying to be helpful. “Starting a family.” The young goliath’s brow knotted at his own uncertainty. “My brother has one story and my sister has another. I don’t know who to believe.”

Tilly tried hard not to laugh, seeing that Illikan was quite serious. Ghost merely said "Well, I was thinking on a… somewhat different scale.

“I’m not supposed to ask, but I am very curious,” Illikan mused, then shrugged his enormous shoulders. “We will talk later.” The young goliath looked around at the others. “Well, uhm, I still have a home. If you’re still willing to travel with me.” He drew himself up to his full height, trying to seem older than his years. "The road is better when it’s shared.

“That is true,” Kidalis said neutrally, trying not to laugh. Ghost, however, was regarding the young goliath with a highly dubious raised eyebrow.

“What?” Illikan asked, noticing the look she was giving him.

“You’re the youngest, right?” she began.

“Of what?” Illikan asked, not understanding.

“Of your siblings?” she went on.

“Oh. Yes,” Illikan nodded.

“Just wondering how you’ve made it this far,” Ghost said drily, checking her pack to make sure she had everything as they made ready to depart.

“Well, I am strong,” the goliath boy said defensively.

“I have to think…” Ghost hauled her pack up onto her back, “your older siblings must beat the crap out of you on a daily basis.”

“Well, perhaps not the crap.” Illikan again tried to make himself look taller, which only added to the impression of a boy trying to seem like an adult. “I hold my own. When I was younger I took it a lot worse. But I have gotten quite strong as I’ve grown.” He heft his arm up, showing off his muscles.

Ghost eyed him for a moment, then reached out and pinched his bicep. Hard.

“Ow!” Illikand yelped, pulling his arm back. “You pinch like my sister!” At a look from Ghost, he quickly added “It’s not a bad thing! Her pinch is very terrible!”

“Let’s get you back to your village before they’re missing you,” Ghost said finally, unable to repress a slight smirk.

“They probably are already,” Illikan said, looking worried. “They probably think the Snatcher took me.”

“What’s the Snatcher?” Tilly asked, looking up at the unfamiliar name.

“Dare we ask?” Kidalis said, half-expecting another of Illikan’s fluffed-up answers.

“Some of the villages around our area have been having a problem where people have gone missing,” Illikan explained, quite serious. “I went out with some of my friends. We all quested in different directions to try and figure out how it was happening. I happened upon the goblins and thought perhaps it was them, but I didn’t see any signs that they were taking people. Except me.” Realizing what he was admitting to, the young goliath tried to backtrack. “But that’s ’cause… I… Well, they tried to.” He drew himself up stalwartly once again, proclaiming “But we know how that went!”

“You got lucky,” Kidalis observed drily.

“Luck has nothing to do with it,” Illikan insisted. “You were obviously guided to be by a higher purpose.”

“Well, while I will admit that you could probably have taken a fair number of them,” Kidalis replied, “there is no way you would have lasted against the barghest, the goblin caster, and…”

Illikan dismissed the young noble’s words with an off-hand gesture.“It doesn’t matter. I knew that something would provide. And here you all came.” The young goliath nodded, adding somberly “The mother of mountains is like that.”

“Something did provide,” Kidalis acknowledged, not wanting the discussion to delay their departure. “You’d better thank the Totems that we were there.”

“I do,” Illikan insisted stubbornly. “I thank the mother of mountains.”

“You’re wise for your age,” Tristan put int, trying to help smooth over the young goliath’s ruffled feelings.

“I don’t know. Thank you.” Illikan looked surprised, clearly not being used to being praised for wisdom. He grinned and shrugged. “But I am mostly known for being strong.” He then pointed with his spear to some foothills in the distance. “If you see that hill there, it is the one that, if sunset were coming, it would come just to the left of my village. It’s that way.” The direction he was indicating was somewhere between north and northwest.

“Good,” Kidalis said, leading off in the indicated direction to get everyone moving.

“Let’s be on our way,” Eustace said to the others.

Kidalis glanced back when he saw that Ghost was lingering at the edge of the village. “Ghost, if you are done here…”

Ghost waved him on. "There’s one last thing I need to do. I’ll catch up with you shortly.

As the other Fire Wasps followed after Kidalis, Eustace lingered in the back, out of earshot, explaining ‘the birds and the bees’ out of earshot to Illikan, who seemed shocked.

“Really? the young goliath exclaimed.

“I’m not sure how it works for Goliaths,” Eustace said, “but for most beings…”

“All of my siblings are lying to me!” Illikan said, clearly dismayed.

“First to grab the honor,” Tristan murmured, nudging Eustace in the side.

Back at the village, Ghost set about her personal task, one she was sure Eustace would not approve of which is why she chose to wait until he and the others were out of sight. She worked quickly but methodically, using her hatchet to prepare and sharpen a set of stakes which she drove into the ground at intervals until they ringed the village along all approaches. The young shifter then went to where the goblin bodies had been piled up and began chopping off the heads, taking them in twos and threes back to the stakes where she impaled them on the sharpened tops, each one facing away from the village in grisly warning to all who approached. The smoke from the pyre, drifting through the trees and across the snow-covered ground, cast an eerie pall over the scene, which seemed appropriate given the message Ghost was making. This place is ours, she thought fiercely as she jammed the last head down onto the last sharpened end, glaring into its glazed and unseeing eyes. And this is the fate of any who would take what is ours.

By the time Ghost caught up with the others, Eustace was just finishing his talk with Illikan about mating and procreation, at least from his theoretically knowledge of the subject. “..that’s how it works.”

“So we’re not found under rocks,” Illikan said, his young stone-like visage frowning in understanding. “And we’re not brought by birds. So both of my siblings were lying!”

“I don’t think you’re…” Eustace ventured, not wanting to cast the Goliath youth’s siblings in a bad light as he tried to think of some way to rationalize their versions. “I don’t think you’re-”

“I will have stern words with them,” Illikans said firmly, gripping his spear in such a way that the minotaur wondered what ‘stern’ meant in Goliath culture.

“You might be born from rocks,” Eustace said, remembering the some of the tribal origin stories he’d read in the course of his studies. The abbott had, after all, told him that in every ancient myth there was almost certainly some grain of truth.

“I do not think so,” Illikan said quickly, but his face softened with doubt as he remembered his own tribal tales. “It is said that long ago our we were born from rocks. But that was when our race was young.”

“I think that’s called a euphemism,” Ghost said as she came up alongside the two.

“It might be a creation myth,” Eustace offered, ready to go into another prolonged lecture. “Not a myth, but-”

“No,” Ghost countered, smirking. “I’m pretty sure part of it comes from ‘rocks’.”

“Are you saying that I have… big stones?” Illikan said cheekily, picking up on the tone in Ghost’s voice and provoking a laugh from Kidalis who had come up as well. “Do not ask me to prove it. I have only just met you. And you are very furry.”

Ghost eyed the Goliath youth, her smirk vanishing as her ears drew back a bit. “I think I have been insulted, but I am not sure.”

“You’re just furry,” Illikan went on, waving a hand as if to dismiss any hint of insult. “I know many people who are furry. I would not show them my great stones either.”

“So how far is it to your village?” Eustace put in quickly, noticing that Ghost’s fist was already clenching and wanting to change the subject before Illikan got it in the arm.

“Heaven help us if we are ever around this kid when he is older,” Kidalis sighed, diplomatically inserting himself between Illikan and Ghost, whose ears were still flattened back with annoyance.

“Maybe someday,” the young goliath said as he started jauntily heading along the path.

As they walked, Kidalis asked “What are your plans?”

“What?” Illikan asked back, not understanding.

“What is your plan,” Kidalis elaborated, “for when you get older? Will you travel?”

“I… don’t know,” Illikan said after a moment, frowning slightly. Apparently he’d never given the future much thought. Or any thought for that matter.

“For the first time,” Ghost muttered, giving the garrulous goliath a narrow-eyed sidelong look, “I now understand why Arun and the others shook their heads so much.”

“I am not certain,” Illikan went on, continuing his response to Kidalis. “I am still rather young. I must spend some time among my people, but it is generally considered appropriate for us to do some travelling.”

“If you do wish,” Kidalis ventured, “after you have perhaps get a little bit more skill at fighting – and you are obviously off to a fair start – my father and my sister run a very well known mercenary company and you would do well in their ranks.”

“Except that I was never that bad!” Ghost glared at Tilly’s snort and Eustace’s dubious eyebrow as the two shared a glance; they knew her when she was young and, oh yes, she was that bad. “Not a word!” she growled, her right hand balling up into a fist in warning.

“Actually,” Tilly said, stepping up quickly to walk alongside Illikan – and put the big goliath youth between his shoulder and Ghost’s fist – “my grandmere used to say that if there is no ill will in your actions, you never need apologize.”

“Your grandmother sounds very wise,” Illikan said somberly, oblivious to the sub-currents of growls and glares going around him.

“And yet we always looked forward to getting together with you every year at the fair,” Eustace said, dropping an amiable – and restraining – arm around Ghost’s shoulders. “There’s something endearing about your chutzpah.”

“My what?” Ghost blinked, then narrowed her eyes at the unfamiliar word, wondering if she’d been insulted again.

“Your boldness,” Eustace said airily, keeping his grip on her. “Your bravado.”

The next couple of days passed quickly. The weather was cold and cloudy at first, but finally cleared, and the group realized that that were now going generally upwards, the land rising steadily before them. Illikan seemed quite a home, mountain-goating his way up trails what were obviously to him familiar trails. Jumping atop a boulder, the goliath youth paused and pointed upwards above the trees to where, in the distance, a building could now be seen, jutting out of the side of a precipitous cliff. "That is the monastery above my village.

“Looks… precarious,” Eustace said, shading his eyes with his hand as he regarded the strangely placed structure.

“Nobody knows why the monks put it there,” Illikan said, following the cleric’s gaze. “But there are stories. They say they are guarding something. I am sure Brother Nahum will be delighted to see you. He hardly ever gets visitors.”

“Is he a goliath?” Ghost asked.

“No.” Illikan frowned in thought. “I am not sure what he is. He is… different.”

“Different than any of us?” Ghost asked, gesturing around at their very disparate group.

“Yes,” the goliath youth responded firmly, nodding his head. “He is quite different.”

The next day was cold and windy when the Fire Wasps made it it to the village, though they were almost on top of it before they even realized that it was a village. The buildings looked to have been almost drawn out of the natural landscape, stone dolmens everywhere, with no signs of obvious cutting or working in the parts that had remained uncovered by a layer of snow. And no signs of obvious entrance either. Sudden from up ahead came the sound of clashing metal, one piece between purposefully struck against another for the specific purpose of making noise.

“They have spotted us,” Illikan said.

“Is that the alarm?” Ghost asked, suddenly wary, looking ahead for any signs of movement.

“Just a warning that people are coming,” Illikan replied with a shrug. “We are not unfriendly.”

“Obviously,” Kidalis noted, nodding to where a group of goliaths were now openly approaching, armed but not with weapons in hand.

(more to come)

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Going North - (Placeholder)

(more to come)

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Going North - Hunting The Past

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?
Asha?
Up the tree, Squirrel!
No!

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.

Asha?
Up the tree, Squirrel!
No!
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.

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